The Grand Bahama Port Authority and the Celebrate Freeport Committee have planned several events to commemorate the 56th anniversary of the signing of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement and the founding of the City of Freeport. The following events will take place over a four-day period: A Family Fest will be hosted by the Freeport Downtown Business Association on Saturday September 17; a special celebration service will be held at St. John’s Jubilee Cathedral on Friday September 16; a business forum will be held at the Foster B. Pestina Centre on
Thursday September 15 and a luncheon will be held on Sunday September 18 at the Grand Lucayan.
The City of Freeport was founded in 1955 by American financier Wallace Groves. We all should be thankful to God for the second city of The Bahamas. Had the city not been founded by Groves,New Providence’s population would have been well over 300,000.The City of Freeport has been a blessing to this country. Nevertheless,while the members of the Celebrate Freeport Committee and the principals and staff of the Grand Bahama Port Authority are in a festive mood,there presently exists in the City of Freeport and in the other communities of Grand Bahama a large number of persons who are not at all happy with the current state of affairs on the island. These people are hurting and are deeply troubled.
Celebrating Freeport is the farthest thing from their minds right now. Many Grand Bahamians are jobless. The only thing that they are thinking about is how they are going to keep a roof over their heads and putting food on the table for their children. Many residents are now depending on Social Services for assistance. The large number of Grand Bahamians who are now depending on Social Services is simply mind-boggling. This recession has now crossed over ethnic and social barriers. I had even seen a white woman standing on the line at that government welfare agency. One police officer told me that the lines at Social Services are always long with desperate residents seeking some assistance. I have been approached on numerous occasions by grown men and women asking for money to buy food to eat. I have also seen families come to my church asking for assistance. The number one complaint of these individuals is that they have nothing at home to feed their children. These people are not bums or vagrants; they are honest,hardworking Grand Bahamians who have fallen through the cracks.
They used to work,but they are now unemployed. These people are willing to work, but they just can’t find a job. These are just a few of the many victims of Grand Bahama’s devastating recession. This is happening right here in Grand Bahama.I am not talking about Haiti or Somalia, I am talking about Freeport, Grand Bahama.
This decade-long recession in Grand Bahama has gone from bad to worse. I don’t see any light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Right now many Grand Bahamians are at their wits’ end. The Government of The Bahamas and the Grand Bahama Port Authority need to come to the people of this island and tell us what they intend to do with the City of Freeport. Grand Bahama just cannot continue going on like this. Right now it appears as if neither the Free National Movement or the Progressive Liberal Party knows how to fix Freeport’s broken economy .If the two major political parties don’t have any ideas as to how to fix the economy, then what’s the point in even voting in the upcoming general election? This city continues to hemorrhage jobs at a rapid pace. Just recently City Markets downtown had closed its doors for renovations. The store was closed for about an hour or so. It was reported by the press that officials from the Department of Labour had met with management and a decision was made to reopen the store for business.
I have been to City Markets downtown and in Lucaya and I can tell you that both of those establishments are experiencing hard times.The three City Markets stores on the island have lost many of their customers in recent years. I think the owners of the three grocery stores are operating at a loss. I wouldn’t be surprised if City Markets closes its doors. The closure of City Markets in Grand Bahama would be yet another devastating blow to this island. With an unemployment rate already flirting dangerously close to the 20 percent mark,the last thing that this island needs right now is another major business closing down. It was only a short time ago that Freeport Flight Services closed its office in Freeport. Over 50 workers were sent home.
Grand Bahama’s tourism sector used to be very vibrant in the 1970s and 1980s.In recent years, though, it has experienced a significant decline. Many of the island’s resorts and hotels like the Grand Lucayan, Xanadu Beach Resort and Marina, Old Bahama Bay Resort and Yacht Harbour, Sunrise Resort and Marina, Castaways Resort and Suites and Flamingo Bay Hotel and Marina at Taino Beach are all experiencing hard times. In most cases,the occupancy levels at these resorts are under the 30 percent mark. This is a perennial issue with many of the hotels on Grand Bahama.There are times when these hotels are very busy, but this is only on rare occasions throughout the year. Low occupancy levels are now the norm. As long as the Grand Bahama Airport Company continues to charge the airlines exorbitant rates to land at its airport, the hotels will continue to struggle to keep their doors open. With stopover visitors few and far between, is it any wonder why so many Grand Bahamians are unemployed? The tourism industry in New Providence, Abaco and Exuma is way better off than Grand Bahama’s.
Many of the hotel workers are only working one and two days a week. That is between 8 and 16 hours a week. With an hourly rate of about $5, this means that many of these workers are only earning about $60 a week. After you deduct National Insurance and Union fees, you barely have enough to buy gas for your car, let alone grocery. This can explain why so many hotel workers are struggling to keep up with their mortgage and rent payments. Even the employees of Treasure Bay Casino are only working 2 and 3 days a week. One of the workers at that casino told me this a few weeks ago.
I wish Bahamas Press would go around to the various banks on the island and inquire about the number of families whose homes have been repossessed in the last ten years. Bahamas Press should also try to find out how many families are living without running water and power. I understand that the poverty rate in the United States has risen to 15.1 percent. This means that some 46.2 million Americans are now living in poverty. I believe that Grand Bahama’s poverty rate exceeds that 15.1 percent figure. It has to be much higher than that. I have seen persons who were classified as middle-class a few years back reduced to stocking shelves in grocery stores.
There are also certain segments of the industrial sector that are not coping too well in this dismal economic climate. I know of persons who are employed in the industrial sector and are only working one to four days a week.
I have written letters to the editor about Grand Bahama’ ailing economy on more than one occasion. I feel the need to until something drastic is done to address our situation. When I came to Grand Bahama in 1993, things were looking good for this island. But that is no longer the case. Marsh Harbour, Abaco has a more vibrant economy than Grand Bahama.In fact, the government has recently contracted FES Construction to build a state-of-the -art airport in Marsh Habour.The Leonard M.Thompson International Airport will cost $27 million. I understand that the government also plans to build a modern hospital on that island. While Marsh Harbour continues to grow and blossom, Freeport continues to die a slow death. The dilapidated condition of the Royal Oasis Resort and Casino properties and the significant decline of the International Bazaar epitomizes the current state of Grand Bahama.
The Grand Bahama Port Authority and the Celebrate Freeport Committee want all Grand Bahamians to come out and celebrate the 56th anniversary of the City of Freeport with them. But how does one celebrate when you know you have about a month to leave a home the bank has repossessed from you? How does one celebrate when you are four months behind in your rent? How does one celebrate when you are using candle and kerosene lamp for light? How does one celebrate when Grand Bahama Power Company’s electricity bill is inching closer and closer to your rent and mortgage payment? How does one celebrate when you have to tell your children that they won’t be having any dinner tonight? How does one celebrate when you can’t buy your kids their school clothes or give them lunch money? How does one celebrate when you are depending on a $40 food voucher from Social Services every month? How does one celebrate when the boss tells you that he will be laying you off? How does one celebrate when the bank harasses you everyday over a loan you are unable to pay?
Very few Grand Bahamians are in a celebratory mood nowadays. The fact that the Grand Bahama Port Authority and the Celebrate Freeport Committee could even talk about celebrating Freeport during these challenging times is either an indication that the powers-that-be are woefully out of touch with the hurting residents of Grand Bahama or they are oblivious of how severe the recession really is. If anything, Grand Bahamians should have been invited to mourn over this island’s sorry plight. Now is the not the time to be celebrating this dying city. We must grieve with the many Grand Bahamian families who have been reduced to poverty over the past ten years. We must grieve over a city that has lost its magic.
A grieving Grand Bahamian