By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A former MP yesterday doubled down on concerns that "supporters of the governing party have been trying to get their hands on the Grand Bahama Port Authority" amid push back to calls for politics to be kept out of Freeport's future.
Frederick McAlpine, the ex-Pineridge MP and senator, declined to name the "supporters" he referenced in yesterday's statement when contacted by Tribune Business. However, he added that "there's a former person in the Port [Authority] also trying to get involved".
Again, it was unclear who he was referring to as Mr McAlpine resolutely refused to give names. However, multiple sources have suggested that Hannes Babak, the former Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) and Port Group Ltd chairman, who is known to be close to the Prime Minister, is playing a key role behind the scenes as efforts to resolve the future of Freeport's quasi-governmental authority and the wider city intensify.
Mr McAlpine, in a statement to this newspaper responding to Fred Mitchell, minister of foreign affairs and the PLP's chairman, renewed his opposition to the Government acquiring the GBPA - or partnering with a private company such as Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) to do so - for fear that the arrangement would be infected by politics.
While agreeing with Mr Mitchell that new ownership and vision at the GBPA is critical to Freeport's future, he differed markedly on how to bring this about and the form it should take. "Do I believe there should be transformation or replacement of some of the shareholders? Yes," the former MP asserted. "However, do I want the Government running the Port Authority? No.
"Do I want the Government hand-picking a company to buy the Grand Bahama Port Authority and then to have that company turn around and sell certain assets to political cronies of the governing party. To that, I say: 'No'. Neither do I want a company whose only concern will be that of oceanic ports with no regards to the management of the city itself."
Mr McAlpine continued: "Grand Bahama is in need of an economic infusion, but let us not kid ourselves or try to ignore the elephant in the room. There are persons who support the governing party who have been trying to get their hands on the Grand Bahama Port Authority for some time.
"This will only lead to victimisation and marginalistion of persons within the Grand Bahama community. That is the cess pool of politics to which was referred. The Government, or its cronies, will not run Freeport any better than it has run the western and eastern end of the island of Grand Bahama."
The reference to a "political cess pool", which was made in a Tribune Business article published on Monday this week, resulted in a voice note from Mr Mitchell rebuking Mr McAlpine. However, this term did not come from the latter but, rather, Freeport businessman Darren Cooper.
It is unclear whether Mr Mitchell was speaking in his capacity as a Cabinet minister or PLP chairman, as he referenced both in yesterday's voice note. However, he argued that political interventions - such as Sir Lynden Pindling's 'bend or break' speech - had brought positive reforms to Freeport in the past by making the city "more equitable" for Bahamians and "changing the social order".
Fast forwarding to the present, the Fox Hill MP, who is taking a keen interest in Freeport and the GBPA, said: "We have a problem today. Freeport and Grand Bahama are dying on the vine. It has been steadily downhill with the new owners of the city, or at least the heirs to the owners of the city, very much seeing it only as a play thing and not a place with real live people; a real live place where people live, breathe and have their own being.
"The owners of the city have sold-off assets, failed in their commitments to being fresh investment in, failed in their obligations to bring essential infrastructure and build the city." Arguing that only the Government can reverse this trend, Mr Mitchell added: "It points to only one direction to solve it. New investment must be found and only the Government can do so.
"There's only one organisation that can do that, and they won't play footsie with the owners of Freeport. Push has come to shove, and the PLP has been leading the way in causing change to come to this paradigm." He added that "the first tentative steps" to revive Freeport, and find new ownership and investment for the GBPA, had been taken under the last Christie administration with the effort now picked up under the current Davis-led government.
Noting that Maurice Moore, the former FNM MP, had previously signed on to a report recommending that new investors/owners be found for the GBPA, Mr Mitchell added: "The owners of the Port are unable or apparently unwilling to meet the financial commitments which they have to the place and take it to the next stage. We all know that. It's as clear as day."
Circling back to Mr McAlpine, the PLP chairman asserted: "Why, when the PLP is calling for change, would a former MP and member of parliament, whether unintentionally or not, otherwise sully the political process by saying that Freeport and the changes the PLP proposes should not be caught in a cess pool of politics.
"Firstly, politics is not a cess pool. Secondly, it's only politics, Mr MP McAlpine, that can find a solution to the problems of Freeport. You should join us, not fight us, but whether you come with the PLP in moving forward to fix the problems of Freeport and Grand Bahama, we are moving ahead."
Mr McAlpine, for his part, while backing efforts by the Davis administration or any government to make economic progress in Freeport, whether involving change at the GBPA or not, said it must be profitable for both investors and the people of Grand Bahama.
"Grand Bahama doesn't need political wrangling when it comes to this community or the Grand Bahama Port Authority. We need no more politics. We need vision," he added. "I would be one of the first proponents, and have done so, to say that change is needed for the island of Grand Bahama, particularly the area that is run by the Grand Bahama Port Authority.
"Do we wish to see change in the Grand Bahama Port Authority; the way business is presently being dealt with? Yes. Do I believe it is lacklustre among the shareholders with regards to the transformation of Grand Bahama. Absolutely yes."
The Government has been examining whether change at the GBPA is best achieved through either a private buyer acquiring the Hayward and St George families’ ownership interests, the Government doing itself or the regulatory and quasi-governmental powers being devolved back to Nassau.
The Prime Minister, in a prepared statement earlier this year, said: "Grand Bahama over the many years has failed to live up to its true promise and potential. And we are are in discussions with the Port Authority for the purposes of identifying a path towards putting Grand Bahama on the right track to enable it to fulfill its full potential and promise."
The GBPA owners, in a 2016 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed with the Christie administration, committed to masterplan the development of their landholdings and seek a buyer for their interests within specified timelines. However, none of these conditions appear to have been fulfilled.
The GBPA, while described by some as a ‘regulatory shell’, still possesses considerable powers that include business licensing, building code and environmental enforcement, city management, and the power to levy fees and service charges together with the operation of a free trade zone that offers multiple forms of tax relief to investors.
However, its income-earning assets have been transferred to Port Group Ltd. These include the 50 percent equity stakes in Grand Bahama Development Company (DevCO) and the Freeport Harbour Company, likely to be the two families’ most valuable assets, together with interests in multiple other companies such as Freeport Commercial & Industrial, another major landowner.
Should the Government seek to take over the GBPA’s regulatory powers, one source said it would amount to an “abrogation” of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement and raise multiple legal issues that would have to be addressed. Among these, they added, would be the provision that requires four-fifths (80 percent) of licensees to approve the devolution of quasi-governmental authority to a local government-type entity.