When One Dollar Really Means Millions

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Minister of Aviation announced that the government is purchasing the GB airport for $1

By E.J. Rolle

My wife often reminds me “it’s not what you say all the time, but it’s how you say it”.

Politicians understand this concept well, but their appreciation of this quote hoovers around how best they could abuse the concept. Any seasoned politician knows that it’s not only important what they say, but how they say what they really don’t want anyone to know.

I know, it’s confusing.

And confusion is what many politicians are hoping for when addressing the electorate, particularly during an election year. So, when Tourism and Aviation Minister, Dionisio D’ Aguilar announced in Parliament on Wednesday that the Government of the Bahamas has agreed to purchase the Grand Bahama International Airport for only $1, the true amount that lies behind that statement was so easily missed by many, particularly the blind loyalists.

D’Aguilar made the announcement during a debate in Parliament on the Airport Authority (Amendment) Bill, 2021. The announcement brought about a sporadic banging on the table by members of Parliament belonging to the governing party. It was a show of their support; an encouragement to the Minister, congratulating him for a job well done.

However, dig a little deeper and the truth of how much exactly the Grand Bahama International Airport will eventually cost the government of the Bahamas, and one will see that once again, Hutchison Whampoa pulled the wool over the government’s eyes and will again be walking away with a good chunk of the Bahamian taxpayer’s dollars.

As if being able to claim the hurricane insurance money from the Grand Lucayan Resort, without having to pay out a dime, and then having the government turn around and hand them $65 million for the Resort, Hutchison had their hand held out again, knowing that the government of the Bahamas would eventually shell out another sum of money to take away a heavy responsibility that belonged to Hutchison and the Grand Bahama Port Authority, principal owners in the airport. 

For Hutchison, it was a win-win situation, thanks to the devastation of hurricanes in Grand Bahama.

But, let’s take a closer look at just how much money acquiring the Grand Bahama International Airport will really cost the Government.

“The Bahamian taxpayer, especially the taxpayers on Grand Bahama, want to know the amount that their government has agreed to pay for that airport,” D’Aguilar told Parliament. “Well, Mr. Speaker, the purchase price is one dollar. Yes, Mr. Speaker, one dollar. Plus, the assumption of a portion of staff related costs, which should not exceed $1 Million.”

That already has all the signs of a Hutchison Whampoa deal – where they always leave the government holding the bag. Remember, a part of the deal when the government bought the Grand Lucayan Resort, included the Government having to pay off all of the employee’s severance packages.

Why does the government have to once again be responsible for paying off employees, this time at the airport? Who negotiate these deals for the government?

Notice, that the Minister said the payment of staff related costs should not exceed $1 Million. That means there is the real possibility that when they begin to calculate the costs for staff, it could be beyond the assumed amount.

But, there is more to this deal.

According to D’Aguilar, “the Airport Authority is purchasing about 2,500 acres of land, an 11,000-foot runway, that was recently resurfaced, taxiways, ramps, etcetera, all for under $1 million”.

So, already, we’re looking at over $2 million dollars – $1 million to pay off staff and $1 million to buy the property. Then, according to the Minister, the government will spend about $1.5 million on repairs. That brings the total thus far to about $3.5 million.

And yet, there’s more. 

D’ Aguilar estimates that it will cost between $40 – $50 million to rebuild the airport. In all, it could cost the government over $50 million dollars to buy, pay off staff and rebuild the airport.

Probably it’s a good thing that Hutchison is only charging them One Dollar. 

After months of negotiations between the Government, the Grand Bahama Port Authority and Hutchison Whampoa, this is the deal the government came out with. For months, they were haggling over trying to obtain ownership of the GB Airport.

The facility was decimated by Hurricane Dorian in 2019, leaving national terminal flattened and the international terminal severely damaged. According to the government, Hutchison made it clear from the outset, that they had no interest in trying to repair the airport.

Minister of State for Grand Bahama, Kwasi Thompson told the media on a number of occasions, Hutchison’s stance. Even Aviation Minister repeated the now famous remarks, allegedly made by the giant Chinese Conglomerate. 

Having already bought the Grand Lucayan and knowing that filling hotel beds will rely heavily on significant airlift, the government began negotiating with the principal owners to take over control of the GB airport.

It was a former GBPA Attorney, Carey Leonard, who strongly advised the government to “not get suckered” into just buying the loss-making Grand Bahama International Airport from Hutchison, but to try and secure a package deal that included both the airport and the Freeport Harbor Company.

He said that the package deal would have provided sufficient earnings to avoid having to turn to the taxpayer for further multi-million-dollar subsidies.

“Government should, in its own mind, decide how quickly they are going to do this, because if they negotiate with Hutchison, Hutchison will negotiate them to death and try and hold you to ransom,” Leonard said back in November of 2019.

“I encourage the government do a compulsory acquisition and then argue over the value, if you must, in court. Deal with that afterwards. Just get the thing out of the hands of the current operator.”

And the government found out the hard way, on more than one occasion, just how Hutchison negotiates. Yet, they find themselves in the same position yet again.

Leonard’s suggestions went unheeded and the government pursued acquisition of just the Grand Bahama International Airport and now, it looks like they will have to pay a heavy price for it. 

During his contribution to the debate, Minister Michael Pintard said that the airport at GB has been through much and has seen much devastation over the years. He added that the hard-economic situation in Grand Bahama and throughout the Bahamas, because of Covid-19, demands that something be done to try and bring back airlift to the island. 

In her contribution to the debate, Pakesia Parker-Edgecombe, said that whatever the government does, is always done for the good of the people. 

Hutchison is singing the same song, as they laugh all the way to the bank.

Minister D’Aguilar said that he expects the purchase to be completed “very shortly”, noting that once the sale is finalized, the asset will be transferred to the Airport Authority, which will create a special purpose vehicle to operate and redevelop the airport.

The government is hoping to rebuild the airport in Grand Bahama, as well as other airports throughout the Family Islands, through public/private partnerships. That may be the only saving grace for the government, in terms of saving some costs during the rebuild.

One good thing that could come out of the government acquiring the GB airport is that fees at the airport should be lower, which in turn should make ticket prices for Grand Bahamians much cheaper. Lower fees could mean more airlift and a boost to the Grand Bahamian economy.

However, the final overall cost to rebuild the Grand Bahama Airport is still uncertain and probably will not be known for a long time to come.

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