Is there a sense that Grand Bahama has been left in the shadows a little bit whilst New Providence enjoys a development movement and a business boom?
That is fair to say in my opinion. Freeport has always been considered the one with potential and some will argue there is still potential there, others will sort of indicate that it has become a miss opportunity. My feeling is that it does have so much going for it that it still has potential.
Going back to your question, yes Freeport has been sort of left in the shadows. Nassau is your traditional capital that is where everything comes, where everyone comes, it has been very much tourism and financial services based. Freeport has suffered, I think, because everything is centralized there and you tend to stick where the other services are. I think Nassau has the benefit of more people, also there has been the issue of the Port Authority. I think there has been a perception in Nassau that the Port Authority runs the show up in Freeport and they just, leave them to their own devices. My personal feeling is that Freeport should be more focused, industry primarily, on the second home market. We have the space, the beaches, the proximity on the people side. On the industry side I certainly think that Freeport has been commonly referred to this sort of industry capital of The Bahamas. As far as making use of that I do not think we have, I think there is a lot more that we can do and people are starting to recognize it. Obviously, there is the purchase and expansion of the BORCO World Terminals by Buckeye Partners, they spent billions and have a very aggressive expansion plan; Hutchinson invested heavily into the container port; World Caribbean and Cargo Corporation invested heavily into the ship market. I think there is recognition of it, and the question is Why has not anyone else jumped in on it? I think that there is where you are going to have the difference of opinion. Like in any major anniversary it is a good time to reflect. On reflection I do think that we did miss a lot of Opportunity, I do not think it is a lost Opportunity, there is still some that we have to catch on. I believe strongly in the future of the maritime business here and by extension I think there is a considerably untapped market in the distribution, logistics and third party logistics. We have all of the components, along with the other big centres will have one or two of the components and still manage to make success. Freeport has all of them, it has a very significant large, well equipped airport, the longest runaway that can handle all the big planes; deepest harbour inland harbour south of Nova Scotia; a very large container port; a good infrastructure, particularly for a developing country and the gem is that we are 90 miles form the biggest consumer market in the world.
Could you give us some background on what you would consider the major milestones so far in the development of your company and where you believe you can fit in the development of the island?
I think initially there is recognition of the potential of the maritime business here I think that is the first step and we were lucky enough to recognize that. I think we sort of taken what was come about. Steady progress. We found a niche market in the dry dock, support of the clients of the dry dock, particularly the cruise lines. The two major ones have an interest in the business and will keep coming here, they will fill up in their own gas station. Part of going forward that is important for us is now trying to anticipate the on going needs of as the shipyard continues to develop and take on more complex jobs that needs to be more in insularly services. One of the original concepts, or original selling points of the shipyard was that it was going to generate the need for insularly services and it was going to be an opportunity for Bahamian entrepreneurs, Bahamian business men to capitalize on that. We are starting to realize, I think that is coming to fruition now. We are seeing consistent plans, consistent people coming back and what we are preparing is for these people starting to say, Look instead of being transient, in and out, there is enough here now for us to establish ourselves, make investments and put some money into the ground. We are reacting to that by investing in real property, we have been sort of non-asset based until now. We are going to be investing in a large warehouse space to try and give these people when they want to come in a facility and a more tailored service as opposed to, Look come and invest in Freeport in the maritime business we are saying, What is it that you are going to need? Are you going to need space? A facility? What services that support you are you going to need? Storage? Logistics? Small manufacturing? Small assembly? To make sure these people are recognizing the value of not being transient and know that we are capable of delivering to them.
Do you believe Freeport needs basically a one-stop shop for any investor coming in and have all these services provided?
Yes. We want to be able to say to someone, Look we have for you a warehouse space, an office space and we are prepared to tailor it to how you work.
If you think big and in a long-term strategy what could Grand Bahamas achieve? What for you would be the ultimate ambition?
The ultimate ambition of what I would like to see in Grand Bahama is really to fulfil its potential with respect to what it has naturally in addition to the sun and the sea. We have the proximity to the US; there has been significant investment in the harbour, basically in the maritime business and I think we need to capitalize on it. I would like to see a more developed free trade zone. We have everything in place, we have the incentives and there is no law that needs to be changed it is all there for the taking. I would like to see this to become the transhipment hub of the Americas. I think that what is lacking primarily is money and we need to make it more attractive to some of these bigger logistics companies, distribution companies and even end-user retailers to recognize it. I heard the story of someone that had come in and that lived in Florida for years and had no idea that Freeport was on the doorstep and what it had in terms of connections to the world, the airport facilities, the proximity to the US, the land availability, the labour availability, the tax There is money out there and we need people to invest, we need foreign investment, foreign knowledge of the business and probably as importantly we need a nation to be more accepting that we are a young country, relatively inexperienced to ___ skills and we need to welcome foreign investment coming in.
Can we see all the maritime industries and organizations joining forces and coordinating their approach to the rest of the world? Do you agree there should be built a maritime brand for The Bahamas and a maritime brand for Grand Bahama?
I think it is not happening. I would put my name into the hat as someone that is prepared to contribute, interested in it and believes in it. I think it is a long-term goal. I would not want immediate progress to stop while this group gets together. I think there is probably more that we can be doing in the short-term that will eventually lead to a maritime group.
Do you think there will be immediate impact form the expansion of the Panama Canal on trade and business?
Yes, I think that any increase in shipping traffic through the Panama Canal will obviously benefit The Bahamas and Freeport particularly.
What about the competition from Jamaica, Cuba and Miami? Is Freeport well positioned to see off any competition?
I think handled correctly, absolutely. We have the very deep water harbour, the expertise and vision of the Hutchinson. I think the initial further drenching of the harbour is possibly not necessary at the time but I think it is an indication of where they are looking. There are certainly plans for expansion, larger cranes, in a very broad sense they are preparing for the big ships that will be able to come through the Panama Canal. We are very well positioned, have the right people in place with the right vision and the money to invest in that. One of the advantages we have is that it is becoming more difficult to import into the US. The US customs and board of patrol and those organizations are making it more difficult and the potential of a stop off very close to the market is a huge area where we can capitalize.
Everybody agrees that the potential is incredible. Does The Bahamas have an education system to match that potential, looking at the long-term?
I do not think so. I think there needs to be some modern practical education, more focus on the cultural education. Like many young sovereign countries, everyone wants to do it themselves and I think that we have to start accepting from a Government level that will trickle down to, quote the people, We do need help. We need help in terms of expertise, finance and most importantly we need to be able to change our thought process for that to be acceptable and not to have someone coming here and take over what is rightly ours.
There needs to be mind set change in the country. How do you bring that about at a national level?
I think our primary issue is our immigration policy. I think it is important for any country not to just open the doors and let everyone come wandering in. I think it needs to be more selective, it is very broad at the moment. Obviously we have issues with refugees from Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic, but I think that what is happening is the provisions to try and control that are being extended broad stroke to proper investors. The sense is that immigration is more of an assessment as opposed to an approval process. If I am investing in a foreign country I want to know that at any time I can put my people into work here and even saying that it is a controversial remark. If we do have the mind set that we do need this help and being able to accept that and also recognizing the benefit of it. Looking at the two major maritime businesses, the container port and the shipyard, I think you would be hard pressed to ask anyone in Freeport if they do not have a close relative or a relative that one way or another is either not working directly or is not benefiting. That is two major investments basically touching everybody here. If you let a foreign company here, foreign expertise, foreign funding, chances are they are going to employ Bahamians. There is quite a big myth that some of the foreign investors want to exclude Bahamians and as an employer here that is absolutely not the case, almost without exception people want to employ Bahamians. They have come to The Bahamas not only to fulfil their business ambition but also to contribute to the nation. Financially is far less expensive to employ Bahamians.
This Government claims to be a young administration that is going to smash through the red tape and be the most open for business government ever in the history of The Bahamas. In your opinion is that just politician speak or is this the start of a new more opened Bahamas?
I think it is politicians speak and it comes back to what I think is an unfortunate mind set, I think it is what a lot of the people want to hear, that we are going to protect the Bahamians and Bahamian jobs. Like any politician they quote what they feel is right and have to say to keep their position and get themselves elected. I do believe the Government is saying the right things, but are we seeing translated? No. We are not seeing it translated on a low level. It is time consuming to get a license, to get exchange control approval for investment and besides time consuming it is sometimes obstructive to get immigration sorted out.
Is this a country where the private sector will need to take the lead moving The Bahamas to the next level and fulfilling the potential for this island?
Yes, I believe that we as the private sector will have to push the Government and I think that the Government will have some tough things to say in order to turn it around. There is very little between the parties to debate on. We have no tax that tends to be the big debate with another jurisdictions. Most things are fairly consistent. The one that is quite often more debated is foreign investment, foreign workers and foreign employment. I think the Government has to start saying from the top, We need the expertise and make these people who are considering investing in The Bahamas feel confortable. We need to stop talking about giving away Bahamian jobs to non-Bahamians.
80% of these jobs are in the tourism sector and the future should be moving away from tourism to diversification.
Yes, I firmly believe we should leave tourism in Nassau and the other islands and bring the industry and the second home market into Freeport. It is frustrating because we have all the pieces of the puzzle.
How would you vote on the referendum on oil drilling?
I do not think it is the silver bullet, but a lot of people seem to think that it is. I think yes, as much as can be done without becoming invasive in terms of research or test drilling should be given. I think it should be left to the experts to do. The Government needs to do property diligence into the effects of it. That has the potential of becoming ___ down. You do your diligence, your checks and make sure that the environment is protected and that it is being done properly. Fingers crossed that it produces something back for the Bahamian people but I am not spending my money hoping that we are going to have oil at the end of the day.
Interview by Voicesofbahamas.com