Prime Minister Davis speaks bluntly in his call for the GB Port Authority to ‘live up to its part of the deal’

0
609

FREEPORT, Grand Bahama, The Bahamas — Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, the Hon. Philip Davis didn’t mince words, use hyperboles nor ignore the ‘elephant in the room’ in his recent address to the Grand Bahama business community, but instead spoke bluntly about why his government is calling on the Grand Bahama Port Authority to live up to its obligations to the people of Freeport.

“Maybe the problem is not that successive governments have asked too much from the Port Authority, but rather that governments have asked for too little,” Prime Minister Davis told a jam-packed ballroom of Grand Bahamian business owners at the Grand Lucayan Resort on Monday, May 6, 2024.

The special dinner meeting of the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce featured Prime Minister Davis as the guest speaker. The Prime Minister used the opportunity to address the “talk of the town” in Grand Bahama – the government’s demand that the GB Port Authority pay fees owed for works carried out in Freeport by the government.

Before addressing some of the specifics surrounding the government’s demand of the Port Authority, Prime Minister Davis drew on history, pointing out that following the 1955 signing of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, “both the promise and the peril of that arrangement were apparent.”

Mr. Davis alluded to the fact that because at the time the government of The Bahamas did not have the resources to develop Grand Bahama into a full-fledged economy, it offered extraordinary concessions to those who did, ceding significant sovereignty to foreigners looking to turn profits.

Despite this, Mr. Davis noted that the arrangement allowed Freeport to develop quickly – in ways that would have otherwise been impossible. The long-term tax concessions and development rights gave major players the confidence to build a deep-water harbor and the infrastructure necessary for turning a sparsely populated island into a significant economic center, one that boomed with activity and industry.

“But the perils of ceding authority to investors with no particular commitment to our people or country – those were also present nearly from the start,” said Mr. Davis.

The Prime Minister pointed out that the Port Authority quickly showed signs of not living up to its responsibilities to the Bahamian people. He pointed out that the oil terminal and refinery, the huge cement [venture] all churned out huge profits for their private owners and operators – while polluting Grand Bahama’s air and water.

He noted that ninety-nine percent of real estate sales in Freeport during those early years were to non-Bahamians; and after fifteen years of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, of the 1,400 licenses on the island only 155 of those were held by Bahamians.

“Tonight, I’m asking you, have decades of deference delivered you to the Promised Land?” Prime Minister Davis asked the room of Grand Bahamian business owners. “Where’s the magic? Where’s the prosperity that’s supposed to be the reward for submission? How many Bahamians have been enriched and empowered?  Enough to justify the billions in concessions?  “I have had enough of the scare tactics!”

Mr. Davis noted that as Prime Minister of the Bahamas for the past two-and-a-half years, he’s worked relentlessly with his Cabinet to promote the Bahamas and its national interest, building alliances, fighting for fair climate finance, fighting to get The Bahamas off blacklisting, fighting for fair treatment, working to make sure that the voice of Bahamians and their interest are well represented.

“Tell me something, does it make sense to you that we would fight for you around the world, but not fight for you here at home?”

Prime Minister Davis referenced several “facts” to prove that the GB Port Authority has not lived up to its “part of the deal” for building and taking care of Freeport, including the erosion of public beaches; a downtown hub that had been “dead” for 20 years, with empty lots and shuttered, derelict buildings; the deterioration and eventual closure of the International Bazaar.

Mr. Davis said the Port Authority had divested themselves of key assets – the road building company, the harbor company, the utility company, the power company and even the sanitation company. He noted that the Port sold for profits the very assets that were supposed to allow them to develop the economy in Freeport, as they were required to by law.

“They were happy to offload the airport to my predecessor, who somehow consented for the Bahamian taxpayer to take on the liability of rebuilding the airport,” said Mr. Davis. “When the Port Authority owned all these assets, they had a credible argument to make to investors.

“But now? Now they appear primarily to be in the license fee-collecting business.

“This is what happens when cities are treated like family heirlooms, passed down without a thought as to whether those inheriting are willing to serve the interests of our communities over their profits.

“I don’t know what they did with all the money they made from selling off all those companies, but I know what they didn’t do: they didn’t invest in the climate-resilient infrastructure Grand Bahama needs in this new climate era of intensifying hurricanes.”

The Prime Minister said these neglects can no longer go unchallenged. He added that the Government of The Bahamas cannot continue to subsidize the Port’s private profits with public funds. He noted that the Port Authority may be the licensing entity in Grand Bahama but added that it is really the government doing all of the work.

“We give the Port Authority extraordinary concessions – in return, we should get extraordinary growth,” said Mr. Davis. “Instead, Grand Bahama’s economy has lagged behind other islands. The Port Authority collects your license fees, but they long ago stopped earning them.

“Every era brings new challenges and new possibilities, and when old arrangements do not serve – it is not just our right, but our obligation to ask how can the people be better served? How can we close the gap between potential and reality?

“I have an open door and an open mind about what comes next.  The only thing I’m not open to is the status quo.”