By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Village Road businesses yesterday said they can “see the finish line” on year-long roadworks that have caused sales revenue to plummet by up to 70 percent.
Michael Fields, president of Four Walls Squash and Social Club, told Tribune Business the project’s contractor had disclosed that paving work should start at the road’s northern end this week as business owners wait to receive the Government’s formal response to their proposal for tax relief and other incentives to help commerce in the area rebound.
Revealing that the Davis administration has asked for seven working days to reply when the two sides met last Monday, he added that the Government “had a listening ear” to the private sector’s plight and appeared to be “very open” to providing some form of assistance to Village Road businesses.
The details remain to be worked out, and Mr Fields said he wanted to give the Government the time it had requested to respond before commenting in greater detail. Nevertheless, he told this newspaper: “The Government actually expressed their sympathy and had a listening ear. They were certainly very open to the possibility of some sort of compensation to the businesses. It was very positive and they were very open to it.
“They promised a response to us within a week. It’s been four days and I want to give them an opportunity. They have to review our proposal in detail. They have to look at the historical things that were done and then really come to us in writing.” Based on the outcome of the meeting with Michael Halkitis, minister of economic affairs, and other government officials, Mr Fields said he is “very confident” that some relief will be forthcoming for businesses and residents.
Some 15 companies had signed their names to a letter authored by Mr Fields where it was suggested the Government provide “refurbishment grants” for residents and business owners to repair damaged premises, vehicles and other facilities impacted by the project. It also called for Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) bill discounts, and “full sponsorship” of a collaborative marketing campaign to entice consumers back to the Village Road area.
VAT credits, plus Business Licence and real property tax waivers, were also suggested as mechanisms to compensate for the damage inflicted by roadworks that have caused consumers to avoid the area “like the plague” and resulted in up to a 46 percent income losses for businesses.
It is not unheard of, though, for the Government to provide tax breaks and other concessions for businesses impacted by long-running roadworks projects. The last Christie administration did so for the New Providence Road Improvement Project that impacted multiple businesses in numerous areas of the island more than one decade ago.
Mr Fields yesterday reiterated that the latest roadworks completion date of January 31, 2023, is unlikely to be met based on current progress. However, he added that several businesses have been informed by the project’s contractor that paving work will start this week at Village Road’s northern intersection with Shirley Street.
“It remains to be seen,” he said, “but it appears that they’ll start that paving exercise this week. There’s not many open trenches compared to where it was three weeks ago. It’s obviously coming to an end. We’re starting to see the finish line and, of course, we’re excited about it.
“We have some scepticism because there have been so many delays in the past. At least for my business I don’t think we’ll meet January 31, but certainly we can see the finish line.” Once the roadworks have finished, Mr Fields said all Village Road business owners will have to invest in repairing and upgrading their properties after the impact to premises and driveways.
“We did a survey of all the businesses, and it was between 30 percent and one business was as much as 70 percent. The average was somewhere in the 40 percents; the drop in revenue,” he told Tribune Business, “as well as damage to buildings, all the dust, use of premises and driveways on Village Road with heavy equipment, loss of business.
“Everyone is going to have to invest in their properties and bring them back to a level where they’re ready to have the public back.” The completion date for the Village Road roadworks was initially scheduled for September last year, but the deadline was then shifted to December before moving again to January. It now appears as if work may drag on into February 2023.
Mr Fields, in his letter to the Government, wrote that “an economic stimulus package” will be a vital tool in helping the area’s businesses to rebound in 2023. “The sprawling construction and protracted delays have placed a crippling strain on local businesses, which employ hundreds of Bahamians,” he wrote.
“The Government has recognised the importance of business relief in the past, and the risks of unwieldy roadworks literally putting Bahamians out of business completely. The current losses come at a time when the ordinary cost of doing business continues to rise, on top of the fact that we have all just barely emerged from the full impact of the pandemic.
“Small businesses have recently faced increases in electricity costs, property taxes, wages and inflation. When the work is complete, businesses will also incur high costs to clean up our properties, repair damages, and re-engage customers.”
Mr Fields continued: “Between the open trenches, unpaved roads, detours, strained traffic management and dust, customers are avoiding Village Road like a plague. The original target for completion, which was September 2022, and even the revised date of November, would have allowed local businesses to benefit from the holiday bump that most rely upon.
“Each missed deadline has serious implications for businesses, and there is little belief that the latest end-of-month forecast for completion will be met given the lack of clear communication and the conditions on the ground. With no clear end in sight, our reserves are depleted, our business planning efforts have become futile, and we continue to experience tremendous losses.”