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Bahamas wants 'clarity' on Gov'ts GBPA plans

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Frederick McAlpine

• Ex-MP asks: 'Are you declaring economic war?'

• Minister: GBPA won't 'stand in way of prosperity'

• Sends clear signal Haywards, St Georges must go

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

A former MP yesterday urged the Government to come clean on the action it plans to take over the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA), asserting: "The country is waiting for clarity."

Frederick McAlpine, the ex-Pineridge MP and senator, questioned to Tribune Business whether the Davis administration is "declaring economic war on the Grand Bahama Port Authority" after another Cabinet minister yesterday warned that the Government will not allow the interests of Freeport's quasi-governmental authority and its owners to "stand in the way of economic prosperity and the fortunes of thousands of Bahamian families".

Responding to this latest message, delivered by Ginger Moxey, minister for Grand Bahama, the former MP said the Government's stance to-date has raised multiple unanswered questions and only further undermined already-fragile confidence in Freeport among both existing and potential investors.

Mr McAlpine said that among the issues to be answered is whether the Government intends to acquire the GBPA itself, has a private sector buyer lined up to do this, or if an acquisition will involve it partnering with outside investors. He added that the Davis administration also needs to urgently explain what it plans to do with Freeport's founding treaty, the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, given that the Prime Minister has asserted it is "not working" and failing to attract fresh investment.

"That's exactly where I am; I'm trying to get clarity," Mr McAlpine told this newspaper. "The country is waiting for clarity. What can you do with the Hawksbill Creek Agreement? You can't amend it. Are they going to throw it out the window? What are they proposing to do?

"I hear what the Government is saying, but we're still not certain about exactly what they are saying or what they intend to do. We hear you talking: What do you intend to do? What is your proposal? Do you intend to buy the Port or do you have a buyer for the Port? Can you force a sale of the Port? What do you propose to do with the Hawksbill Creek Agreement? These are the questions. I hear the drumbeat, but are you declaring economic war on the GBPA?"

Mrs Moxey, in her 2023-2024 Budget communication, gave a clear signal that the Government wants the Hayward and St George families to exit their investment and sell the GBPA after failing to reverse Freeport's 18 year-plus decline that began with the Royal Oasis closure and Edward St George's passing.

"Madam Speaker, the time has come. It cannot be business as usual. The status quo must change," Mrs Moxey argued of Freeport's governance. "There can be no entity that stands in the way of economic prosperity for Bahamians, notwithstanding how successful the agreement with that entity may have been in the past.

"We will not, under any circumstances, allow the interests of a body corporate, particularly one that is not beneficially owned by Bahamians, to stand in the way of the fortunes of thousands of Bahamian families." Mrs Moxey's message remains consistent with that given by both Philip Davis KC and Fred Mitchell, minister of foreign affairs and the public service, who has said the Cabinet stands "1,000 percent" behind the Prime Minister on the Freeport issue.

"They can have no doubt now that the Prime Minister doesn't want them around," one Freeport source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the message delivered by Mrs Moxey. She yesterday also argued that the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, signed in 1955, gave the GBPA and its owners too much power without the necessary "checks and balances" to hold them to account and ensure they fulfilled their governance and development obligations.

"It’s the make-up of Grand Bahama and the power that the past UBP government of 1955 gave to a private entity to control ordinary government-related functions without checks and balances," the minister asserted, seeking to answer the question she herself had posed as to why the island never seems to fulfill its potential.

Tribune Business sources have suggested the Government holds significant potential leverage it could employ to squeeze the GBPA and, by extension, the Hayward and St George families. One is their seeming non-compliance with the 2016 memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Christie administration, in which they pledged to seek a buyer for their Port equity ownership interests within a specific time period and masterplan their significant landholdings.

And, with Freeport's real property tax exemption having expired and not been officially renewed, the Government retains the ability to treat the city as a Family Island and impose this tax on all foreign-owned property in the Port Area. Those facing the largest tax bill, running into millions of dollars, would be the Hayward and St George families via the Grand Bahama Development Company (DevCO) and Freeport Commercial & Industrial.

The GBPA also has other multiple real estate-owning companies that would face a financial hit from such a move, and Freeport sources have revealed Department of Inland Revenue (DIR) officials have openly been telling them they should obtain taxpayer numbers because real property tax is coming.

The Government could also hand the GBPA the bill for all public services and infrastructure that it has financed in Freeport but which the latter is supposed to pay for. Several sources have suggested this bill could amount to many millions of dollars, with the Davis administration now seemingly disinterested in offers by Rupert Hayward, Sir Jack's grandson, to sell part of his family's shareholding to new investors who are thought to include Weller Development.

Mrs Moxey, meanwhile, yesterday said Carnival and Royal Caribbean, both of which hold 40 percent equity stakes in Grand Bahama Shipyard, had confirmed "they are prepared to invest over $500m" to expand its operations and restore it to a leading cruise ship repair facility.

"The project will begin this year, and the docks will be delivered in the back half of 2025 and 2026," she said. "When completed, the expanded shipyard facility will be the largest cruise ship repair facility in the world, and with the new docks, it will capable of servicing all cruise lines around the world including cargo ships, bulk carriers, tanker ships as well as the growing new LNG (liquefied natural gas) vessels.

"This means that the larger cruise ships currently operating year-round in the Caribbean will be able to be repaired here in The Bahamas. From the beginning, the expansion project will create opportunities for local entrepreneurs, contractors and Bahamian businesses."

Mrs Moxey promised the investment will "double the yard's economic impact by 2026", and grow total employment - including among sub-contractors who service the Grand Bahama Shipyard - to more than 1,000 full-time employees.

Comments

BMW 10 months, 1 week ago

PLP declared war on Freeport at the entrance to BORCO long ago

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