Exuma and Ragged Island MP Cooper shares his vision at Exuma Chamber event

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Hon. CHESTER COOPER Exuma and Ragged Island MP

I. Chester Cooper MP
State of Exuma Address
Exuma Chamber of Commerce – 12pm – 26.2.18

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I thank you most sincerely for asking me to address the Exuma Chamber.

I have been here many times before, but it is the first time I am here as the member of Parliament for The Exumas and Ragged Island. As you know, I am a businessman and a past chairman of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce.

I can truly say and mean it that I do feel at home here, given that I’m from Exuma and given that we’re talking business, one of my favorite subjects.

I am grateful to serve Exuma – whether you voted for me or not – and I am guided in public life by the reality that I represent all Exuma.

I want to make you proud.

I want to do all I can to advance my island and my nation. I come from Forbes Hill one of the remotest settlements in Exuma and I have done quite well in the country and the region and for that, I am grateful to God, my family and my community, and Exuma and her cays, which have shaped my perspective as a Family Island man and allowed me to understand the unique needs and advantages that we have.

But before I turn specifically to Exuma, let me say that the struggle continues on our sister island – Ragged Island even though the cameras have left the scene.

I get a lot of flack from some of my friends in governance, but the people of Ragged Island need all the advocacy they can get, and at every opportunity that presents itself. And sometimes out of sight is truly out of mind, and I want to remind everybody that the situation on Ragged Island persists.

There is still no nurse on Ragged Island.

Still no police, no administration building, no school and no immediate plan in sight for full restoration.

Very early in my first year as MP I was called to divert significant attention to Ragged Island as a result of the catastrophic impact on the island. That effort continues and I ask that you keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

Before I look to the future, let me recap many of the things we we’ve talked about over the last eighteen (18) months as I laid out in my eVision 2030 plan. Whether we are local or 2nd home owners, PLP or FNM, gold, red, yellow, or green – Black or White, employers or employees, whether we are from Forbes Hill or George Town, we have been given an incredible gift and we all have an obligation to help to move our island forward.

And there’s lots more to do in the next four or so years, but we have made some strides. Such as:
1) Sponsoring the launch of Junior Achievement in Exuma

2) The purchase of Fire Fighting Equipment

3) Entrepreneurial Skills training & business planning

4) A Youth Development Symposium to take place this weekend

5) TeamCooper’s Youth Empowerment Center will be launched shortly with an array of wholesome activities for our youth between the ages of 11 and 21. We intend to creatively launch a center in Mt. Thompson but have activities in different communities each month across the island.

6) Camp BAF is having its 3rd annual in July this year and has now grown to over 200 children attending. We expect that this will continue to grow.

7) Convincing Aliv to expedite it’s arrival in Exuma, which will, through competition, cause improvements in telephone and data services to the island.

8) Through a partnership with BTC I am so very proud to announce that the community park around the pond is expected to begin in earnest next week. This will be the beginning of shaping our main town center and segue into the Exuma Pride program, which will be launched shortly, which I will talk a bit about it later.

9) We have provided three scholarships to BTVI and two partial scholarships to Universities abroad. This year we will offer an additional two (2) and will consider the field of nursing and medical technology.

10) I have also, if I do say so myself, provided aggressive representation for Exuma and Ragged Island in the House of Assembly

With respect to representation, it is no secret that the Government is restrained in what it can do for the many islands of our archipelago. In the recent mid-year budget, they reported spending $76 million less in infrastructural works than the prior year. The government further reported $32 million less in spending on healthcare. These are both very significant statistics for Exuma and I need not explain why as we live with this each day. I’ll be frank in telling you that I wouldn’t agree with either of these moves no matter who was in power.

It is my job to be the advocate for more of the tax dollars to return to Exuma. For more SD plates to spur local business and more taxis to improve the services provided to the tourism product and ultimately to have a decent percentage of the taxes collected in Exuma, returned to our island for re-investment in the infrastructure.

I have often said, that given Exuma’s size, given the relative small number of hotel rooms we have punched well above our weight class and continue to be one of the fastest growing island destinations in The Bahamas.

For instance:
• Tropic of Cancer voted # 4 by USA today.
• World class golf tournament put on by Sandals
• World-renowned swimming pigs that they’re now trying to emulate on other islands.
• The sheer natural beauty of the 365 islands in the Exuma chain
• We are home to multi-millionaires and billionaires and celebrities perhaps more per capita than anywhere else in The Bahamas – perhaps anywhere else in the world.

Status of Foreign Direct Investment Projects:
And despite the tumultuous time in the world, the vicious hurricanes that have impacted the region and the volatility in financial markets, I am pleased to say that Exuma continues to hold its own as a leader in the Foreign Direct Investment and the tourism space generally.

Sandals, our flagship property, has had a very good start to the year with robust occupancy and is very bullish about the remainder of the year. Barring certain necessary corrections as it relates to some of the things that we all are concerned about, like airlift, I have been comforted that Sandals’ ongoing expansion in Exuma is a question of when and not if. Sandals continues to be committed to Exuma and continues to be an outstanding corporate citizen.
There is also the recent re-opening and refreshing of the world famous Peace & Plenty with an initial spend of $1m in renovations, which brings that product in line with many upscale offerings.

Children’s Bay Cay, although delayed, is still on the horizon. I can tell you that the rumors that this project is stalled are grossly over-exaggerated. The investor has already spent significant funds with Professional Bahamian companies (environmental, engineering, other consultants), land purchase and overheads for the pre-development phase. They have not gone hat in hand – they have their own money! We fully expect, as I am advised, that after full revision of the plans for the project that construction will begin in earnest by the end of the 3rd quarter 2018.

There’s also a new $50m project on Stocking Island to be announced shortly.

And I have been in touch with the developers of the Hooper’s Bay Club and whilst their start date is delayed for now, the project is a passion for the developers and is expected to be advanced in due course.

At Grand Isle: The $4 million investment in the Emerald Beach Club is expected to be open for the American independence this year and with a 90% occupancy level they are experiencing their best year ever. This is good news for Exuma.

As for the Exuma Cays: they continue to be self-sustaining as they cater to the high end market and create significant employment for Black Point and surrounding Cays in Bell Island, Over Yonder Cay and Staniel Cay. Musha Cay, for example, where Oprah frequents, continues to attract high booking at $38,000 per night. I am told that my friend Pedro Rolle will be spending a week or two there for his upcoming Birthday celebration.

Health Infrastructure:

As far as infrastructure goes, the hospital continues to be plagued by the lack of both financial and human resources.

Again, I am not satisfied with the spend so far on capital projects and infrastructure in Exuma and I have let my concerns be known to my colleagues in Parliament.

I have recommended to the Government to consider a full outsource of the Hospital to a management company that will not only fully resource the A & E but also facilitate a medical school and create an infrastructure where we can benefit from medical tourism, including cosmetic surgery, as well as a training hospital. I have personally introduced interested parties to the Government and trust that this suggestion will be advanced in earnest.

I have also recommended to the Government and introduced people to the table who are keenly interested in a Private Public Partnership (PPP) to help in advancing the clinic network in mainland Exuma and the Cays, which will be beneficial to locals, tourist and the yachting community.

Earlier, I mentioned Aliv’s arrival, which will improve directly Internet and cable service on the island.

BTC is undertaking massive investment in infrastructure and upgrades in the mainland and the Cays. To this end, microwave links between Nassau and Highbourne & Staniel Cays will be positioned to provide TV and faster Internet to the Mainland and Cays, with fiber to the homes at February Point and surrounding communities for faster Internet speeds and also in the areas between Stuart Manor and GGT.

As far as BEC, well what can I say about BEC?
Lord knows I’ve tried.

Be assured that I have engaged the senior executives and the Minister with respect to the woes we have experienced.

I am reliably advised that steady advance is being made with respect to restoring the capacity of the local plant. I can also tell you that whilst I don’t have a specific timeline at the moment, some attention is being paid to the vexing issue of street lights and I hope I can tell you something more hopeful soon.

As far as the roads, this is perhaps the most frustrating issue facing our island. I need not further lament the issue. We will continue to patch it up until we can do better which I am assured we will see some relief in the next budget. Let me just stress for the record here again, my dissatisfaction with capital expenditure by the government so far.

With respect to running water for areas between Rolle Town and Forbes Hill, I can advise that the Chairman of WSC has committed to visit this week or next to make a final assessment. We again have persons willing to assist with a PPP but in any event we are pushing very hard for this to be a capital item in the next budget.

As for the airport: I have seen the design. It is, in fact, 99% ready. The former Gov’t negotiated funding with the IDB for the financing. The Gov’t laid a resolution in Parliament two weeks ago to activate the facility which for the funding and Exuma Airport is included. We will continue to agitate for expedited construction but suffice to say construction takes times and therefore we are in dialogue with the respective authority to improve the temporary international arrivals hall, which is, candidly, most embarrassing.

As far as an overall plan for Exuma, I’ve mentioned to you my plan called the eVision 2030.
My plan tries to strike a balance between making Exuma the most attractive place in The Bahamas for investment, for fast approvals, for local skilled labor to be used, for education, training, infrastructure and massive development of our ports and Elizabeth Harbour.

As we approach the final leg of the first year in Parliament, I have been resolute in identifying some quick wins that our residents and visitors can Touch, See and Feel. With this in mind over the next few weeks we will be launching “Exuma Pride”, series of projects that will hopefully inspire more pride in our island, advance many self-help initiatives and get Exuma on the way to being the envy of The Bahamas.

We cannot sit and wait on the Government or foreign investors to do it for us. We must lead the way. I therefore ask for your help.

Exuma Pride is a comprehensive initiative.

It will set out the clear vision that the state of a clean Exuma Island and Cays and the act of keeping it clean and maintained, is paramount.

It’s goals are to have a visible impact on the island in terms of cleanliness and pride; to make Exuma Island and Cays the model of excellence for The Bahamas; to deliver a comprehensive, sustainable programme that greatly impacts the growth and development of Exuma Island and Cays.

Our next steps for the Exuma Pride programme are to agree to the Chairman and Co-Chairman; to Further Define Priorities and Timelines; to Design the Marketing & PR Plan; to create a Budget; to Solicit Donors; to Schedule a Town Meeting; and then to officially launch.
You’ll be hearing more about this in short order.

But to make this a success, we need your help in volunteering your time, participating in our programs, whether by adopting a roundabout, painting your home or business or donating your money in cash or kind. I have said before that I will donate 100% of my MP salary to Exuma and therefore that first 10% or $28,000 will be donated to this initiative. I will not ask you to put your money where I am not prepared to put mine. It will be managed by a local apolitical committee and will be most transparent and accountable. We anticipate needing an additional $250k over the next twelve months if we are to do it properly.

I thank you in advance for your participation and support.

I do invite you to further acquaint yourself with our eVision 2030, a roadmap for transformation in the next 12 years, which I’d be happy to provide for all of you who didn’t receive a booklet during the campaign.

Firstly, sustainable economic development – development that’s good for the environment, in fact enhances it and can fulfill the needs of this generation and those to come if we do it right.
Second, participation by the actual people of Exuma in entrepreneurship – which means ownership. We want to figure out how to tie ownership of our companies and enterprises into benefitting from what the well-funded and large investors are setting up in our communities driving small businesses. Thirdly, we want a skilled labor force ready to tackle the needs of a growing economy, and opportunities for our young people, for those who are not even old enough to work, as well as social, recreational and employment opportunities for those who are.

Through scholarships, education, reweaving the social fabric of our communities and investment in people.

Thank you for indulging me and I look forward to having more specific conversations with all of you on how to make Exuma more robust, sustainable and secure. We do have some challenges, but I am supremely confident that we have enough resources in Exuma and her Cays that if properly mobilized we can drive the development of Exuma and continue to make it the best place to live, work and play in The Bahamas.

I also remain deeply concerned about the ease of doing business in Exuma.

Trust me, I own businesses here – I know what it is.

But I don’t think this one is all on the government.

I think that we, as a community can do more to make it easier to do business in Exuma.
We can all begin by giving better service as employees and business owners.

I challenge the Chamber to develop a specific set of targets working along with the Heads of Department where we control the things we can, for example, the time it takes for local approvals to be considered. This is within our hands.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is not a day that goes by that Exuma isn’t on my mind. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t work for Exuma and advance the agenda for Exumians.

And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about those I spoke with along the campaign trial.

As I relayed during the recent business outlook, what stuck with me most, it is that Exumians want to be a part of Exuma, they want to work, live and grow here. They want to raise their families here. They want to own businesses here, they want to retire here and go fishing, like I will.

But so many Exumians find themselves left behind. Locked out of the bounty our exquisite island chain should offer.

As business leaders we must lead the way in making Exuma a more inclusive society where we encourage new entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, we have not seen enough investment in Exuma over the past years in the growth and investment in Exuma by Exumians and in Exuma for her people.

We’ve seen Exumians locked out of prosperity because of an imbalance of government investment in infrastructure, education, and training, compared to the many millions of dollars Exuma pours into the public treasury each year. I will continue to be the fearless advocate for Exuma.
May God Bless Exuma & her Cays and May God Bless the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.