The Rt. Hon. Hubert Ingraham
Prime Minister
The Commonwealth of The Bahamas

Abaco Chamber of Commerce
2nd May, 2008

I am very pleased to be home in Abaco on this the first anniversary of my party’s return to leadership of the Government and to meet with the movers and shakers of Abaco’s business community. I have brought along with me four of my Ministers, three of whom are also members of the National Economic Council.

I have just had the opportunity to exchange views with the executive of the Abaco Chamber of Commerce over lunch and am now pleased for the opportunity to discuss with a wider cross-section of the community the state of development on this island.
You will agree with me that Abaco has, over the years, benefitted from a fairly successful mix in its economy.

Still, many families in Abaco have had the experience of watching some of their loved ones forced to travel elsewhere for work, a goodly number never to return to live here. Today, however, some are returning, including descendants who previously knew Abaco only from a vacation experience.

This island has become a major tourism destination in The Bahamas and one of the most popular destinations for yachtsmen the world over.

Last year Abaco welcomed some 110,738 stopover visitors. By the end of February this year air and sea arrivals in Abaco were up by 20% over the same period of last year — 39,207 visitors as compared with 32,686.

Importantly, a significant number of visitors to Abaco are repeaters; many are second home owners. With the expansion of time-share and fractional ownership products to the Abaco tourism inventory, the number of repeat visitors is likely to increase. This bodes well for employment and business.

Bahamas Investment Authority statistics for the past year reflect approvals for the sale of real property in Abaco, among foreign sellers and purchasers, valued at more than $91 million including $3½ million in inherited property.

Approvals granted for the sale of Bahamian-owned real estate to international persons during the same period had a value of some $34 million.

The Central Bank reports actual net investment flows to the Abaco economy of $107.86 million with capital transfers among non-resident investors of approximately $36.66 million during the past 12-month period.

You are the third most populous island and the third largest economy in The Bahamas after New Providence and Grand Bahama. The strength of your economy is transforming you into an economic and employment centre. And so, just as Abaconians in earlier years sought economic opportunity on other islands of The Bahamas, today Bahamians from other islands are moving to Abaco.

We commit to ensure that development in Abaco is suited to this island’s capacities, that it is sustainable, and that it will benefit the people of Abaco and the people of the wider Bahamas.

For all these reasons, the Government is engaged in planning, improving and upgrading public infrastructure to meet the needs and demands of a growing Abaco. And, the Government is committed to facilitating desirable investment so as to expand both employment and business opportunities for larger numbers of Bahamians.

Until relatively recently, Abaco’s network of marinas, small motels and vacation and second-homes satisfied the demands of tourists visiting the island with little lasting adverse impact on the environment.

Where less than good environmental practices were implemented – the excavation of marinas without flushing channels, the felling of large acreage of pine forests, construction too near the sea or on sand dunes, the inadequate disposal of solid waste – the impact was not so great because the number of users was so small.

Nature appeared to be able to take care of itself correcting our transgressions. However, our environmental footprint is growing at a challenging if not alarming rate.

Let me state the obvious: Abaco is close to my heart. As you know, I was shaped and moulded as a child on this island. I learned to confront life’s adversities here, just as I learned how not to allow its privileges to distort my sense of values.

I have been pleased and honoured to represent North Abaco in the House of Assembly since 1977. It cannot be a surprise that I feel a tremendous responsibility to do good for the people of Abaco.

So when you speak of the concerns of the people of Abaco over the threats to the environment posed by large scale development, you have my ear.

And, when you speak of the needs of the people of Abaco for improved public infrastructure, for adequate on-island health care and for improved education and training facilities, you have my ear.

My Government is committed to the sustainable use of the environment and hence to economic and social development that permits us to achieve our goal of sustainable development.

As early as 1994 when we were first in office, we agreed to pursue a sustainable tourism policy.

At the same time we appointed our first Ambassador for the Environment and created the Bahamas Environment Science and Technology Commission (BEST) as an advisory body in the Office of the Prime Minister.

And, we took the policy decision to require that Environment Impact Assessments be conducted for all proposed development projects submitted for Government’s consideration and approval.

I will note for the record that we have been better at requiring international participants in our economy to observe good environmental development practices than we have of Bahamian developers.

Be that as it may, today, environmental sustainability has joined financial capability and economic benefit as a lynchpin requirement for the approval of development projects in The Bahamas.

But growing pains understandably accompany the implementation of our policy commitment to environmental sustainability.

The Government continues to be challenged with regard to institutional capacity as well as to adequate human resources required fully to implement and monitor environment-friendly policies across the spectrum of ministries and departments.

In this regard, partnerships with international and Bahamian environmental groups like the Bahamas National Trust, the Friends of the Environment here in Abaco and The Nature Conservancy (TNC, the US-based environment and conservation NGO) are essential to our continued and future success in conserving our resources and ensuring a future for our children.

You are no doubt aware of ongoing initiatives coordinated by the Ministry of Works and Transport to develop improved land use and infrastructure development models for application throughout the country. A new Town Planning Act will be legislated earlier as opposed to later in this term of office as will a new Private Roads and Subdivisions Act.

A draft marina policy is in circulation. Similarly a minimum standard manual is to be developed for the construction of golf courses.

Though neither of these two documents is finalized, approvals granted to proposals involving either new marinas or golf courses now require the observance of minimum standards in the construction and operation of these amenities.

Similarly, along with density, waste disposal, water and energy requirements, historical preservation, observance of minimum construction setbacks from the coastline, and protection of sand dunes and wetlands have become a part of the language of all development project review and assessment. Soon these requirements will be stated in law.

At two tourism developments here in Abaco — at Winding Bay near Cherokee Sound, and at Baker’s Bay in Great Guana Cay — special attention has been and continues to be given to employing environmental best standards.

The special attention given to safeguarding and enhancing native plant species at both resorts have set standards that we would be well advised to follow elsewhere in Abaco and around our country.

These developments have the support of some of the biggest names in the industry and they seek to meet the high environmental standards expected of their high net worth and environmentally conscious clients.

At Winding Bay, the world famous Ritz-Carlton, a subsidiary of Marriott International, is now the 100% owner of the development and management of the Abaco Club. An expanded project has been approved for the resort including the construction of some 260 additional mixed use units, single family homes, condominiums and fractional ownership unites. This resort, which is already in operation, expects to complete its expansion in 2010. Already over 200 Bahamians are employed at the resort. This number is projected to increase to more than 400 Bahamians at the completion of the development.

And, notwithstanding the persistent opposition by a small number of persons to the development at Baker’s Bay, I believe that the standards being observed by the developer, Passerine — including the marina and golf course — fully meet standards promoted by leading environmental protection bodies and organizations internationally. Already some 125 Bahamians are employed in the management and operation of that resort and an additional 100 individuals are engaged in the continuing construction on the site.

Indeed, the harbour here at Marsh Harbour and that in Hope Town would both benefit from the dredging of flushing channels as has been done at Baker’s Bay. Such flushing channels could go a long way toward clearing the build-up of pollutants accumulated in those harbours over the years.

I think it appropriate that I also highlight efforts by the Government to support environmental stewardship through the expansion of the national park system and the increase in Government’s funding to The Bahamas National Trust, the managers of that park system.

In early 2002 we doubled the size of the parks under management by the National Trust. And, with effect from 1 July, 2007, we increased the Government’s annual funding support to the Trust tenfold – from $100,000 to $1 million. Much earlier in our first administration we established here in Abaco, the Abaco National Park to safeguard the natural habitat of the Abaco parrot.

Soon, we will begin to make available to the National Trust specific funding to facilitate the engagement of increased numbers of park wardens for deployment throughout the national park system.

More recently, my Government agreed to participate and to contribute up to $2 million over a four-year period to the Caribbean Challenge, an initiative to support the protection of the marine and terrestrial environments in the Caribbean by ensuring that countries have the capacity to honour their international commitments to safeguard their natural resources for future generations.

Contributions to this initiative will capitalize a Protected Area trust fund which expects to attract matching funding from the TNC, Governments from the European Union and other international donors. The trust fund will be one of the mechanisms employed to secure sustainable finance for The Bahamas expanding protected area network.

Against this backdrop, interest in Abaco continues to grow among those in the international investment community as does the concern of business persons and environmentally conscious residents.

While investment interest is encouraged, welcomed and appreciated, we are not oblivious to the concerns and apprehensions of some Bahamians over the strong interest by international investors in undertaking developments on prime land.

Nor are we unconcerned in the face of some points of view that some of our most pristine land should not be developed period. Nor are we indifferent to concerns and fears that some land in some places is becoming at worst scarce and at best too expensive for many Bahamians.

I am acutely aware that land remains a major issue for many Bahamians. The transfer of large tracts of Crown Land for resale for upscale residential development primarily to foreign clientele has been protested for some time now.

I came to office on a promise to halt such large scale transfers but also to accelerate the processing of applications by Bahamians to acquire Crown Land for residential or business purposes.

Let me say that I continue to be disappointed with the slow pace of processing and approval of applications for Crown Land by Bahamians.

It is an unhappy truth that the survey staff of the Department of Lands and Surveys continues to be stretched by the huge demand for land by residents not only here in Abaco but all over the country.

We are presently engaged in an exercise to identify additional land surveyors for the Department. Once additional manpower is in place, we expect that timelier processing of applications will become the norm.

You may be aware that a team of land surveyors from the Department of Lands and Surveys is presently in Abaco. It is expected that, following upon the completion of their task, many long outstanding applications by residents of Abaco will be able to be expedited.

The team is presently concentrating their efforts in North Abaco where we propose to expand residential subdivisions in Cooper’s Town, Cedar Harbour, Mount Hope, Wood Cay, Fox Town and Crown Haven. A new 600-lot Government subdivision will be created here in central Abaco.

Also, residential subdivisions are to be expanded in Murphy Town, Spring City and Crossing Rocks in South Abaco.

I have digressed. Let me return again to investment projects that are of special interest to Abaco.

It is interesting to note that the historical concentration of significant international investment in Abaco in the North – at Walker’s Cay, Spanish Cay, Green Turtle Cay and Treasure Cay — is giving way to increased, indeed new-found, interest in South Abaco at Great Guana Cay, Lynyard Cay, Joe’s Cay, Snake Cay, High Bank Cay, Conch Sound Point, Lantern Head, Winding Bay, Schooner Bay, Leeward Harbour and elsewhere.

The entry into formerly pristine areas by large-scale developers has been welcomed by some interested in new employment and business opportunities, but feared by others concerned about the environment or otherwise.

New owners have been approved to purchase the renowned Walker’s Cay Resort, closed since the devastating 2005 hurricane season. They propose to refurbish and reopen the resort returning Walkers to its previous status as one of the premier fishing destinations of the world.

Some 50 to 100 persons are expected to be engaged during the construction phase. And, we anticipate that as many as 150 persons will be engaged in its management and operation following completion of the development.

Also in the north, at Treasure Cay, the Bahama Beach Club recently completed the last 47 luxury units of its 88 unit condo hotel, a project commenced during my last term in office.

Also in Treasure Cay, the Phillips Property International received approval for the construction of a 34 condominium facility each with private dock but no marina or fuelling facility.

A stalled mixed use hotel and residential community development, the Mariposa Yacht Club, has also been approved to proceed with an expanded project including the expansion of the marina. Importantly, the unlined hole in the ground dug sometime during the 1960s will now be transformed into a modern, lined marina with an appropriate flushing channel.

A proposal for the development of an exclusive hotel and residential resort at Angelfish Creek remains under consideration by the Government pending advice on funding.

In South Abaco, a low-impact un-gated resort and residential development has been approved and commenced at Schooner Bay. Associated with this development will be the construction of a community centre able to accommodate sports activities as well as other community purposes. Importantly, it can also serve as a shelter during the hurricane season.

You will be aware of an approval in principle granted for a resort at Snake Cay. Snake Cay, together with other nearby cays, constitutes a particularly sensitive environment forming a protective barrier for the mangroves along the eastern coast of Great Abaco Island and serves as a natural fish nursery.

The Government is committed to ensuring that the greatest care is taken to protect that eco-system. As a result of our concern for the environment, my Government did not approve the larger scale development originally proposed.

Instead, approval in principle has been given for a reduced-size project at Snake Cay excluding Tuggy and Bunks Cays.

The reduced-sized project includes a high-end luxury resort and residential community, with 100 hotel rooms, 100 marina town houses, 71 ocean, marina and lagoon residential lots, a marina, spa, health club and tennis club.

Construction of the development is subject to the prior approval of a required EIA. When this development is completed, it is projected that some 430 Bahamians will be employed full time.

Finally, I might add, the approval granted by the Government for this development has a limited shelf life.

Many of you would have been aware that The Bahamas Electricity Corporation had also identified Snake Cay as a suitable site for a power generating facility. And, the Ministry of Health had also selected it as the site for South Abaco’s new landfill.

Given the eco-sensitivity and fragility of the Cays, a breeding ground for a number of marine species, my Government determined that Snake Cay was not a suitable site for the BEC facility. Hence BEC has been required to identify an alternative location for its new generating facility.

Last year, the Government also approved an application for the purchase of three tracts of privately-owned land, namely: Conch Sound Point, comprising 300 acres, High Bank Bay — 400 acres, and Lantern Head — 600 acres, for the purpose of the development of three separate resort projects in South Abaco.

The developers have been requested to scale down the projects and to restrict the first phase of development to a proposed boutique hotel, beachfront villas and resort town houses at the High Bank property and a golf course at the Lantern Head site.

Any development on the Conch Sound Property is to be considered only after the first phase of the development at High Bank and Lantern Head is completed.

You will be aware that these sites are separated from eastern Abaco by a significant Crown Reserve covering some 426 acres.

The Government has advised the developers that while it is prepared to approve access to the sea from each of the development sites through the Crown Reserve, the area will not be sold to them, or anyone else for that matter.

Further, The Bahamas Investment Authority has been requested to organize meetings between the developers and members of the interested public, to include The Bahamas National Trust, the Friends of the Environment and other members of the Abaco community regarding the proposed development and its environmental impact.

Already meetings have taken place between the representatives of the developers and representatives of the Antiquities Commission following the location of historical ruins on the Lantern Head property.

The approval is valid for 12 months and development is subject to the approval of both an Environmental Impact Assessment and an Economic Impact Assessment.

Approval for the development of a mixed use resort at Leeward Harbour south of Sandy Point was also granted last year. In this regard, the Government has given approval in principle for Sandy Point to be given port-of-entry status at such time as it may be warranted.

Notwithstanding the stated support for this development by residents of the Sandy Point area, the Government did not agree to the sale of some 1,000 acres of Crown Land to be integrated into the development site.

Approvals have also been granted for a development on 77 acres of privately-held land at Lynyard Cay. This residential marina development will include some 80 cottages and 150 slips. Construction is subject to the Environmental Impact Assessment.

And approval was granted for the acquisition of some five acres of land by the Delphi Club at Rolling Harbour for the construction of an upscale bone fishing lodge and micro-hotel.

A proposed large-scale development at Great Sale Cay to be undertaken on 1,200 acres of Crown Land has after long years of discussion has been refused.

We also refused a proposal by Corazon Del Mar Limited to develop 30 residential condo-units at Pelican Shores here in Marsh Harbour. This refusal came, as you will be aware, as a direct result of my Government’s response to what we believed were legitimate concerns raised by your community with the scale of the development and its possible negative environmental impact.

As you may be aware, a proposal by international persons for an upscale residential development at Joe’s Cay near Hope Town by international investors was refused by the Government on two occasions largely due to environmental concerns. The site has since been acquired by a wholly Bahamian-owned group who propose to proceed with a modified development on the same site.

There has been some objection to the development from a number of quarters including the Hope Town District Council, again because of the environmental sensitivity of the area.

As the project does not require approval at the national government level (i.e. NEC) it will be for the Town Planning Committee, Physical Planning and Local Government agencies to ensure that all appropriate conditions are applied to approvals granted for construction. My office has brought this fact to the attention of all relevant agencies.

I certainly expect that, should this development proceed, it will serve as an example of proper management and control of the development process by local government authorities.

I have been pleased that my Government’s preference for smaller, mixed-use and environmentally-sensitive resorts is gaining currency with investment groups.

Increasingly, investors are trending away from traditional mega-hotels and this is certainly more in keeping with our interest in respecting the sensitive eco-systems of our islands.

Though smaller, these developments will, I believe, increase employment levels and business opportunities while at the same time offering a more intimate, culturally rich and less environmentally intrusive experience to their guests.

Regardless of size, expanded growth brings with it developmental challenges. Certainly, pressure has increased on both the Government and the community to meet the new and increasing demands for improved infrastructure and services.

Already my Government has engaged two engineers to be based permanently in Abaco so as to facilitate more timely consideration and approval of requisite licences and permits required by these new developments.

We have also commenced a number of infrastructural projects that, when completed, will significantly impact the quality of life of the residents of Abaco.

In this regard, I confirm that the construction of a new power station (4X12 MW Diesel Generators) is proceeding at Wilson City, at a cost of some $80 million.

This will, we expect, provide more reliable and efficient power to mainland Abaco and the Cays excluding Grand Cay and Moore’s Island. The engines are slow speed diesels and will replace the small, less efficient, operationally costly and not so dependable units presently in use.

Land clearing for surveying is presently underway, and the station is scheduled to go on line by next summer.

Clearly, the continued and accelerated development on Abaco has created a number of challenges. Already, the capacity of the existing infrastructure is stretched.

You are aware of plans underway for Marsh Harbour Airport. In addition to reconstructing the existing runway, a 6,000 foot long runway with four connecting taxiways, and a re-constructed apron with adequate drainage, markings and lighting is to be constructed.

This will facilitate jet landings with a related increased capacity to process tourist arrivals. Final review of plans for the new and appropriately-sized and appointed terminal building and air traffic control accommodations and facilities is underway by the Ministry of Public Works.

Works will also be undertaken at Treasure Cay International Airport inclusive of a new FPB facility and airport terminal.

Additional road works are also planned for Marsh Harbour in response to the needs of this growing community. You will recall that the Ministry of Public Works and Transport had undertaken the reconstruction of the concrete Bayfront Road.

The work was below standard and the original contract had to be terminated. It is estimated that once commenced, the work should be completed within a couple of months.

We also propose to build a bridge across the channel separating Little Abaco from Great Abaco. The bridge will provide much needed support to the fishing industry.

And a new port in North Abaco will be built at Conch Rock Cay north of Cooper’s Town.

The environmental threats presented by rapid development touches on many fronts.

I have been disturbed by the continued destruction of hills here in Abaco, as in other parts of The Bahamas, in spite of the provisions of the Conservation of the Physical Landscape Act.

Notwithstanding the increased demand for fill required for the construction of these approved projects, we cannot disregard the need to safeguard all aspects of our environment including our hills.

I must also say that I have been unpleasantly surprised to see the terrible condition into which the famed lighthouse in Hope Town had been permitted to fall.

The lighthouse, an authentic relic of the Victorian era, has suffered not only from the wind and sand-blast effect from recent hurricanes but also from lack of regular maintenance.

This Abaco landmark is now scheduled to undergo a major facelift beginning next month. I am told that a team of experts from the United States is scheduled to assist with the repainting of the red and white lighthouse using a special environment-friendly paint.

Additionally, the two lighthouse keepers’ cottages which were also permitted to deteriorate to a shocking degree will be renovated.

I commend those persons in both the public and private sectors who are lending their assistance and expertise to this endeavour. As with our natural environment, protecting and preserving our historical structures is also critically important part to our national heritage.

And, I also advise that the poor state of the concrete settlement roads in Hope Town is to be addressed by repair and re-paving.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

We cannot meet the challenges before us by looking back. We must look to the future not only for increased development and growth of opportunity but also for solutions to the problems that often accompany development.

We cannot afford to stop development, nor can we ignore the obligation to better prepare ourselves to deal with development. And so we must continue to invest in education and training of the labour force.

We must continue to improve planning and zoning regulations and increase the quality and capacity of our infrastructure. We must strengthen our capacity to oversee and enforce regulations, to determine appropriate densities, identify public works easements, and provide physical and social infrastructure including schools, clinics and affordable housing.

Particular attention will be paid to environmental resource management and to identifying additional areas deserving of protection and conservation. Our participation in the Caribbean Challenge to which I have referred will assist to some extent.

In Abaco, and indeed in all of our Family Islands, this will require the strengthening of local government agencies inclusive of improved budgetary and manpower support, a process, I am pleased to say, we commenced in our last budget cycle.

I am pleased also that much-needed support in this area will be forthcoming as a result of the recently agreed cooperative arrangement between the Ministry of Works, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University to develop a framework for an integrated approach to the development of the Islands of The Bahamas.

In closing, I affirm that my Government takes seriously its role as catalyst for responsible development of the country for the benefit of all its citizens.

We are steadfast in our commitment to ensuring access by Bahamians to prime land for residential and business purposes, and to safeguarding access to the sea for Bahamians.

I noted that the future success of our economy is very much tied to the ability of Government to commit to programmes that strengthen our institutional capacity; enhances our national infrastructure; inculcates fiscal discipline, and provides for investment promotion.

Part and parcel of these initiatives must be a collaborative and cooperative public-private sector support for business growth and development.

The Chamber of Commerce’s motto is “promoting trade, expanding commerce, and building better communities.” I hope that together with the Abaco Chamber of Commerce we can expand commerce and build a better Abaco for everyone.

Thank you.