By Farrah Johnson
THE Progressive Liberal Party has said the Minnis administration’s Over-the-Hill initiative has failed, falling flat on benefits for businesses and residents.
PLP leader Philip “Brave” Davis and a team of party supporters, including PLP deputy leader Chester Cooper and chairman Fred Mitchell, visited businesses to see if conditions had improved since legislation to improve the areas was passed in 2018.
Speaking to reporters in front of Mortimer Candies, Mr Davis explained the purpose of the exercise was to “demonstrate and illustrate the failures” of the government’s policies.
He was referring to the Over-the-Hill initiative in its entirety, which was designed to empower the inner-city community socially and economically through tax concessions and incentives, in the hopes of restoring the area to its “golden age.”
The comments came during a walkabout on East Street on Thursday to highlight what the party sees as the ineffectiveness of the initiative.
“East Street has always been the centre of commerce for Over-the-Hill traditionally,” Mr Davis said.
“There’s much talk and much fluster over what is to happen and what will be happening Over-the-Hill for businesses and residents by this government, but we have discovered and we are now demonstrating that whatever they said (and) whatever they did, all fell flat and is a colossal failure.
“When you walk the street, it’s like walking on a washboard. When you see the residents, the weight of taxes that’s weighing on them placed on them by this government have become unbearable, when you look at businesses, they’re crying for help.”
Cale Mortimer, president of Mortimer Candies, said one of the “biggest challenges” his store has faced is “managing taxation as a small business.”
“Even though I’m a manufacturer, I still have to bring in my raw materials,” he said. “And it’s very hard when you have to pay almost a 30 percent tax just to bring in raw supplies.”
Mr Mortimer added that the labour cost of doing business in the country has also made it difficult for the store to keep its doors open.
He said that although the candy store is a part of the Over-the-Hill initiative, it has not received anything from the programme to date.
“I would love to hire more people, but things have been slow so I’ve actually had to cut down on staff,” he said.
“And as simple as the road outside, the road hasn’t been paved in many years. This is probably the busiest street in the Bahamas, the ambulance and fire trucks have to go up and down it and it’s a risk.
“There are so many accidents happening right at the brink of the hill because the road isn’t wide enough for everybody to pass at the same time. And some of the customers complained that their tyres have been cut from the edge of the road, so if they can’t fit in the parking lot they just drive straight by.”
Responding to his complaints, Mr Davis said he believed businesses like Mortimer Candies should receive incentives from the government.
“He’s manufacturing,” he said. “We should be encouraging manufacturing...because if he’s making the product here...we ought to give him the concession of at least importing the goods.”
A little ways down the hill, the group also paid a visit to Atlantic College where Dr Melanie Thompson, vice president of the institution, told reporters the college is also waiting to get answers from the government.
“The first Urban Renewal GED programme for three years was instituted here at Atlantic College,” she said.
“Right now the programme has been on hold. They have not continued with it and persons are continually knocking on our doors asking us when the programme is going to resume.”
Dr Thompson explained that they were not given an explanation after the programme was discontinued and said although it was approved by the government it “never materialised.”
“It was a programme that was initiated by me in conjunction with Reverend Cooper and Dr Thompson,” Mr Davis added. “We had a lot of disadvantaged young people who did not get their high school diplomas so this programme gave them that opportunity.”
Speaking to the press at the half-point of East Street, Mr Davis insisted the initiative produced the “unintended consequence” of closing businesses in the community.
“We counted the other day that there were 70 businesses on this street that have been closed since the FNM came into power,” he said. “If each of those businesses were hiring at least two persons, that’s already 140 persons out of work.
“My recommendation is that the government put some money on the ground and fix this road and alleviate the burdens that businesses are engaging in. They need to come and listen to these people and determine how to get them started,” Mr Davis said.
The government’s Over-the-Hill programme includes tax concessions for areas which fall in newly created Economic Empowerment Zones.
In addition, the government also wants to create a food market for native products in the area; eliminate outside toilet use by 2025; create an auto-mechanic cluster that eliminates roadside mechanics in residential areas; build a multi-purpose community centre that offers care for children, the elderly and opportunities for counselling and construct a sports complex, among other things.
In March 2019, The Tribune exclusively reported that nearly four months after the Over-the-Hill zone went live, just 17 applications for concessions were submitted and of these 14 were approved.