By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Grand Bahama’s Chamber of Commerce president says the island needs to regain critical mass “like yesterday”, adding: “We desperately need jobs here.”
Greg Laroda, speaking after the newly-elected Davis administration pledged to create “a one-stop shop” for Bahamian and foreign investors to do business in Grand Bahama, told Tribune Business he also backed its Speech from the Throne promise to extend tax breaks to both East and West End.
While the incentives for both areas had continued under the former Minnis administration, he added that they “got lost in the mix” of post-Dorian recovery efforts that saw the island become a Economic Recovery Zone (ERZ) or tax-free zone.
“I think the new administration, they’re probably talking about focusing attention on concessions to encourage investment outside the Hawksbill Creek Agreement covered area,” Mr Laroda told this newspaper. “If persons can take advantage of that, we’ll see development across the whole island as opposed to the central Freeport area.
“We need not just local businesses but foreign direct investment because we desperately need jobs in Grand Bahama. The way we get those jobs is by engaging investors to come in and start up businesses. To the extent we can do that island-wide, we will get to recovery sooner rather than later.”
Ministers in the former administration have sought to defend its investment track record on Grand Bahama, pointing out that the Western Atlantic University Medical School is already under construction, while the Carnival cruise port and ITM/Royal Caribbean deal for the Grand Lucayan also remain on the drawing board (although maybe barely in the latter’s case).
Others, though, believe the Minnis administration failed to do enough in Grand Bahama despite the island providing the Free National Movement (FNM) with three seats in the recent election. The newly-elected Davis administration, meanwhile, has also promised to “capitalise on the ongoing successes of the industrial sector on Grand Bahama”.
Mr Laroda said he believes the latter comment refers to the fact that Freeport’s industrial concerns were able to continue production, and keep hundreds of workers employed, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when “everything was shut down in Nassau”.
“On Grand Bahama we were able to survive the negative effects of COVID-19 a little bit better than folks in Nassau,” he told this newspaper. “What that showed is in The Bahamas we rely to much on tourism and, looking at the industrial sector, how can it encourage those investments that keep going when tourism cannot.
“I would agree with increasing investment over the whole island and city. If an investor is seeking to do business in Grand Bahama, and he is seeking to do business in the Freeport area, then he has to meet the requirements of both the Port Authority and the Government, and sometimes that can be complicated.
“For the investor there may be a lot of red tape that he does not want to go through. If you are looking to do business outside Freeport, there is only the Government you have to deal with, making it easier to get answers.”
Mr Laroda backed placing a “one-stop shop” investment approvals arm within the Ministry of Grand Bahama, arguing that it would be easier for investors to obtain answers to their questions on-island.
“The focus really needs to be on getting the Grand Bahama economy jump-started,” he told Tribune Business, “and getting back from being a burden on the Government in terms of tax concessions to being an asset and putting money back into the Treasury.
“The way to do that is through investment. The investment will bring jobs, bring more people back to the island, which will help businesses.... We need to bring critical mass back to Grand Bahama like yesterday, and the way to do that is through investment and jobs.
“We’ll see how it pans out. The area covered by the Hawksbill Creek Agreement was designed to hold more than the entire population of The Bahamas, and I don’t think we have more than 40,000 people here now because of Dorian and COVID-19. People had to move to support their families and stuff like that. We need to do something to revive the economy of Grand Bahama.”
The Chamber chief added that restoring Grand Bahama International Airport, and developing the island’s new hospital “need to start in a year, not year two, year three or year four”.
“The Speech from the Throne is a mainly a blueprint, a high-level approach as to what the Government will do, and the separate ministries will be responsible for the things we see - the targets, the timelines and the funding,” Mr Laroda added.
“I would expect before the end of the year we will start to have some timelines as to when we will see something going at the airport, hospital and the like.”