EDITOR, The Tribune.
At one time, the Torii Gate at the International Bazaar stood as a symbol of Freeport’s historic economic success, proud emblem of a dynamic and cosmopolitan city which thrived on creating diverse opportunities for Bahamians while attracting commerce, expertise and innovation from around the world.
Sadly, Freeport’s “Golden Years” have not endured. In the wake of various adversities, both natural and man-made, the visionary economic model became eroded, and experts and investors began to look to other jurisdictions that were evolving new models for attracting foreign direct investment. The Bazaar’s iconic arch, once beloved by residents and visitors alike as a symbol of the city’s welcoming spirit, gradually came to be seen instead as a brazen idol to stagnation, missed opportunity and squandered potential.
The demolition of the Gate earlier this month, along with several other structures damaged in a fire at the Bazaar in November 2021, is itself a potent symbol. Without question, it marks the end of an era. At the same time, there’s every reason to believe it could also usher in an exciting new chapter, one marked by renewed progress and prosperity for all Grand Bahamians and for The Bahamas as a whole.
Removing the sad eyesore into which the once-proud Bazaar had deteriorated is a necessary first step in rejuvenating the Port Area, both aesthetically and in terms of infrastructure upgrades. Going further to reimagine Freeport as a 21st Century modern cityscape capable of once again attracting international investment and generating employment and entrepreneurial opportunity on a grand scale will require a great deal more vision, planning and execution, however.
For one thing, the Grand Bahama Port Authority desperately needs to update its City Bylaws in order to undertake necessary improvements and development on a comprehensive scale. These have not been updated since the signing of the Hawksbill Agreement in 1955 and cannot be unless Government agrees to the changes. The Port Authority has made this request of Government multiple times over the past decade, but has repeatedly been denied.
This is an example how a lack of collaboration hurts Freeport. All good projects and agreements need to be improved over time to remain effective and relevant. Government must be willing to collaborate with the Port Authority for the betterment of the people of Grand Bahama.
Modernised Bylaws are just the beginning. The Hawksbill Creek Agreement itself has not been updated for 70 years; in fact, it has been diluted. Meanwhile other free trade zones around the world that compete with Freeport have continued to evolve, becoming more and more effective at attracting investment. In order to compete, especially in the face of the deflationary effect of the devastating hurricanes that have ravaged Grand Bahama in recent years, Freeport needs an updated agreement that will allow the Port Authority to be effective at its job, working in deep collaboration with Government.
What is really needed to jolt Grand Bahama back to life is a totally revamped regulatory framework for Freeport which creates the atmosphere necessary to attract investment at all levels, from the large scale international investor, right down to the locally-owned microbusiness, thereby creating opportunities for Bahamians in diverse fields.
This new framework must prioritise ease of doing business and remove much of the red tape currently imposed on new businesses seeking to operate in the Port Area. To the greatest extent possible, the Port Authority must become a one-stop-shop for investors and entrepreneurs, an autonomous entity empowered to find solutions to the onerous bureaucracy challenges that have stifled and continue to stifle private business. Bureaucracy is the chain that is holding Freeport back; until the chain is removed, it will remain difficult for Freeport to succeed.
Less red tape would greatly amplify the Port Authority’s ability to bring in more investors to expand the tourism product and other services on the island, while also attracting new, cutting-edge industries in areas such as digitalisation of the economy, the blue and green economy, regenerative agriculture, sustainable aquaculture, renewable energy, largescale master-planned real estate development and crucially, climate resilient infrastructure to protect our people from storms.
Climate change is the single most challenging problem facing the whole of The Bahamas today. This is an issue that should unify Government, the Port Authority, both political parties and every community on every island. A strong, empowered, professionally-run Port Authority, deeply integrated with Government and working in close collaboration with all other stakeholders could serve as model not just for Freeport, but for the entire country and even other countries around the world: a public-private partnership tasked with making the country a regional hub in the field of climate resilience and much more. We are all in the same boat when it comes to rising seas and stronger storms; the time has come to work together and find the best solutions to these threats, which can also unlock the door to as yet unimagined opportunities for Bahamian professionals and entrepreneurs in the blue and green economy.
The leveling of the Torii Gate then, can be seen as a great opportunity for a restart; of a chance to wipe the slate clean and get back to the original idea behind Freeport which made it such a success early on: a true partnership between the Port Authority and Government, Freeport licensees and international investors, the local workforce and residents of every community on Grand Bahama, with a view to creating an economic engine that can harness the power of international capital to the benefit all involved. It can also give rise to new powerful symbols that represent a small island nation at the very forefront of creating innovative solutions to the biggest challenges facing our country and our world today.
Director, Grand Bahama Port Authority
May 17, 2023