Brac to the future: Stakeholders aim to fuel the next Sister Islands boom

Click to enlarge.

Geographically speaking, Cayman Brac and Grand Cayman are separated by 90 miles of water. In terms of economic development, the distance could be measured in decades.

A glance at Cayman Brac’s population demographics reveals several trends that stand in sharp contrast to Grand Cayman.

For starters, the Brac’s population has barely grown since the 1960s, and has in fact shrunk since 2008, according to labour force surveys.

Additionally, those who live there are much more likely than Grand Cayman residents to either work for government or be retired. The percentage of elderly people on the Brac is more than double than that on Grand Cayman, and the percentage of central government workers is four times as high.

For some, “that’s how we like it”, according to Richard ‘Mossy’ Moss, a former teacher and current tour-bus operator on the sister island.

With so many residents having steady government jobs – more than 16% of the Sister Islands’ population works for central government, compared to about 5% on Grand Cayman – the Brac has a more egalitarian feeling, Moss said. Moreover, the island’s low crime rate is likely due in part to the population getting older.

Steady or stagnant?

But others see the trends as a sign that the Brac risks becoming stagnant. An ageing and shrinking population reflects the lack of opportunities for younger people there.

“That’s why we have this initiative where we’re trying to get more growth in Cayman Brac,” said Deputy Premier and Brac representative Moses Kirkconnell.

To achieve the kind of growth Kirkconnell would like to see, a group of public- and private sector Brac stakeholders wants to develop the island’s tourism and financial services industries.

In the long run, this could shift the Brac economy towards being more heavily driven by the private sector.

But more government spending is needed to prime the pump for private sector growth, according to Kirkconnell.

“We want to give the private sector the tools they need to invest in job creation on Cayman Brac,” the deputy premier said.

Government is spending tens of millions of dollars on buildings, a piped-water network, roads, a sports complex and other infrastructure. Kirkconnell and some private sector investors are also pursuing the idea of building a cruise pier off the Brac, though that plan is still in its infancy.

Much of the Brac’s initial infrastructure development came from an economic boom some 50 years ago, when the island served as a major destination for tankers making ship-to-ship transfers of oil en route to the United States. The Brac’s Faith Hospital, for instance, was built in large part to serve the needs of the then-thriving shipping industry.

Cayman Brac’s asphalt plant, pictured above, is set to produce about 240 tonnes of asphalt per week this year for road repairs. Government spends about $1 million annually on the Brac’s roads.

The Brac has not seen that kind of rapid expansion since then, according to many long-time Brac residents.

In terms of population, little growth is certainly the case. Once comprising nearly a fifth of the entire country, the Sister Islands (Cayman Brac and Little Cayman) only account for about 3.1% of the Cayman population these days.

During the 1970s, the number of Sister Islands residents ranged from 1,309 to 1,677. Hitting a high-water mark of 2,722 in 2008 – the year of the global financial crisis, as well as the destruction caused on the Brac by Hurricane Paloma – the Sister Islands population fell to 2,296 by 2010.

As of the autumn 2018 Labour Force Survey, the number of residents stood at 2,006.

Therefore, the Sister Islands population has only increased by around 35% since 1960, compared to Grand Cayman’s exponential growth of more than 800%.

That is not to say the Brac economy has not expanded over the years. Based on Cayman Airways arrivals and cargo imports, Deputy Premier Kirkconnell said the island’s gross domestic product has likely increased by 2% annually over the last two years – less than Grand Cayman, but on par with many economies around the world.

Brac developer Mervyn Scott said the island’s economy is currently at an “all-time high”, with hotels, condos and private homes booked fully through this summer.

But the economic growth on the Brac has not translated into opportunities for all.

In the tourism industry, for example, the Brac saw an increase in visitors of about 12% from 2015 to 2017. But more visitors are using companies such as Airbnb – which allow home- and condo-owners to rent out their places – instead of hotels.

This benefits Brac homeowners, but it does not necessarily mean more hospitality jobs. Instead, many young Brackers must leave home to find work opportunities.

“And when they have to leave their families, they’re replaced by caregivers,” Kirkconnell said of the economic migration. “So it’s not the mix we want.”

Prince Charles visited Cayman Brac’s new swimming pool during his visit in March. The swimming pool cost $2 million, and is one of several major capital projects government has undertaken on the island. – Photos: Ken Silva

Ideas and aspirations

Kirkconnell paints a picture of a future Brac that looks more similar to Grand Cayman: an island driven by financial services and tourism, supported by government investment.

Other stakeholders have a similar vision.

In financial services, the new venture TechCayman – an organisation similar to Cayman Enterprise City, in that they both attract businesses to Cayman by offering government-provided concessions and other services – has committed to building a data centre and a training centre on the Brac.

In tourism, the Dart Group recently purchased Brac luxury hotel Le Soleil d’Or, which has been mostly closed since 2017. Dart intends to restore the resort to full operations, and Kirkconnell said the developer is discussing starting other projects on the island, too.

Scott, the operations manager for Scott Development, also has plans to start a ferry service to Little Cayman, and to build a sky canopy ride that would circle the Brac’s bluff.

“My proposal to stimulate economy is to put in the sky train going along the edge of the Bluff from the western end of the island all the way to the lighthouse down along the north coast,” Scott said.

But the TechCayman, sky-car, and ferry projects are contingent on massive infrastructure investments.

TechCayman’s promise to build a data and training centre on the Brac will only happen if another sub-sea internet cable is built there. There is currently one sub-sea cable that connects to the Brac from Jamaica and Grand Cayman, but TechCayman director Gene Thompson said the data centre would need an extra cable for redundancy.

Likewise, Scott said his tourism projects are contingent on the Brac cruise pier plan getting off the ground.

Kirkconnell said a group of local investors is still exploring the cruise pier project, but beyond that, little tangible progress has been announced.

The sub-sea cable and cruise pier projects would be added to heavy doses of government spending already being injected into the Brac.

Public sector support

In 2018, government spent more than $20 million solely on the Sister Islands – expenses on healthcare, airlift, affordable housing and other services.

Those expenditures amount to roughly 2.3% of government’s $879,498,000 public sector expenses for that year, but do not include expenses on police, education, fire and a slew of other government services delivered across the islands. Government’s budgetary figures do not break down how much it costs to provide these services to the Sister Islands, but the figure is likely in the millions.

Along with the tens of millions of dollars in operational expenses, government is spending millions more on long-term capital projects.

Work is under way on a series of new government buildings, including a customs office, immigration office, hospital facilities, and a vehicle licensing office.

Kirkconnell said government eventually hopes to relocate some ‘back office’ staff from Grand Cayman to the Brac, and the new buildings will help free up existing office space to make that a possibility.

Work also continues on the Brac’s new sports complex on the Bluff. Prince Charles cut the ribbon on the new $2 million, 25-metre swimming pool in March, and a multipurpose centre nearby is estimated to cost at least $9 million.

Additionally, the Water Authority is in the midst of a $35 million plan to lay more than 80 miles of pipe, intended to connect about 80% of Cayman Brac residents to the water grid by 2030. Economics and Statistics Office data state that only a little more than 14% of Sister Islands households currently have access to piped water.

The needs for the project are multifold, according to Water Authority officials, who say that it will boost the Brac’s economy, encourage development and improve standards of living and public health.

However, progress has been slow. The Water Authority started the development in 2013 and so far has spent more than $4.5 million to make about 180 connections.

The water works are also a major reason government allocated $1 million annually in its 2018/19 budget to repair the island’s roads – because sections of road are being torn up to lay the pipes.

Road works have helped to support Scott Development, which is the Brac’s largest private sector employer with nearly 50 employees.

Ideally, Scott Development director Paul Scott said his company will work on putting in private subdivisions for homes – clearing bush, levelling hills with hammers, and paving roads.

But government road jobs help keep people working when private sector business is slow, said Scott.

“We always had one or two road jobs for the last 20-25 years, but the last year we had one fair-sized government job and a smaller road job,” Scott said last year. “But we haven’t had any major road jobs for the last two to three years, besides two for government.”

Looking for a boom

Even with road jobs, most of Scott Development’s business comes from shipping concrete and sand to Grand Cayman, said Scott.

“We need a little more,” he said. “The amount of men it takes to run a business this size, we need a little more going on.”

Scott is confident that most Brackers agree with his family and others that it is high time for the island to be developed. He said he thinks the idea that Brackers like keeping the island quiet and undeveloped is a myth.

“I think that’s sort of a myth,” he said. “People from Grand Cayman think that because the Brac is a religious island and family oriented. It’s safe for kids to play on the streets and the beach. We have no crime, no pollution, and crystal-clean waters.”

Those waters “need to be explored by more people from the world”, he added.

If you value our service, if you have turned to us in the past few days or weeks for verified, factual updates, if you have watched our live streaming of press conferences or sent an article to a friend... please consider a donation. Quality local journalism was at risk before the coronavirus crisis. It is now deeply threatened. Even a small amount can go a long way to sustaining our mission of informing the public. We need our readers’ financial support now more than ever.