Brac recovery: A limited role for government

Cayman Brac, the birthplace of many, if not most, of Cayman’s most prominent families and successful entrepreneurs, finds itself in difficult times.

Great merchant families such as the Tibbettses, the Fosters and the Kirkconnells, among others, all shared the common soil of this little island, growing up in the shadow of the Bluff.

Disturbingly (and perhaps instructively), however, all had to leave its shores to establish their empires and achieve their great successes.

It took visionary leaders, such as Layman E. Scott Sr., (affectionately known as “Teacher Scott”) to realize that education would be the passport that future Brackers would need to achieve with knowledge what their forebears achieved with their hands and expertise in all things nautical. To this day,
Cayman Brac students regularly outperform their Grand Cayman counterparts.

It is, therefore, especially disturbing for us to hear the following diagnosis for the Brac from Opposition Leader McKeeva Bush: The island, he said, is “dying on its feet.” The prognosis, from East End MLA Arden McLean, was equally mournful: “This place is going to be for the newly-wed or the nearly dead.”

In 1970, the Brac had a population of about 1,300 people. At the time, the Brac was the third-largest district, behind George Town and West Bay, making up about 13 percent of the country’s population.

Even then, at the nascence of what we now call the “Cayman miracle,” Brackers were left out of Grand Cayman’s burgeoning success.

In December 1971, East End MLA Warren Conolly, who was responsible for tourism, said the best the government could do was to promote the Brac alongside Grand Cayman and Little Cayman.

“We can’t tell the tourist where he must go. We can tell him the island of Cayman Brac is there,” he said, adding, “Unfortunately 60 miles of salt water separates us.”

Forty years later, the Brac’s population has grown marginally to about 2,100 people, but shrunk proportionately to the country’s population, now accounting for less than 4 percent of the total.

Successive governments have attempted to create artificially a viable economy on the Brac, infusing the somnambulant island with money, concrete, asphalt and public sector jobs. As many as 90 percent of Brac employees today “work” for government.

The current government is paving the Bluff road using equipment appropriated from Grand Cayman and is still pursuing the multimillion-dollar “Hurricane Hilton.” At the same time, efforts are under way to secure direct flights to the Brac from Miami and to lease new intra-Islands aircraft. The Cayman Airways flights from Grand Cayman to the Sister Islands have always been heavily subsidized.

In fact, public sector paternalism, even with the most benevolent of intentions, has enabled (perhaps even encouraged) the Brac to become umbilically dependent on wealth generated by Grand Cayman.

Government life support may help prolong a slow expiration of the Brac, but it will not reverse it.

What is needed, we believe, is the energy, innovation and investment that can come only from the private sector. Government can participate in — but not lead — the effort by establishing policies that encourage business development, such as low (or no) duties, work permits for the asking, and a minimum of regulation and bureaucratic red tape.

Perhaps the country’s most successful families, who are still proud to call the Brac their homeland, can form a consortium to lead such an economic renaissance.