Brain trust: Erica Smith, left, executive director for Bermuda’s Economic Empowerment Zones, meets with zone officers Roxanne Christopher and Ray Lambert. *Photo by Nicola Muirhead
Brain trust: Erica Smith, left, executive director for Bermuda’s Economic Empowerment Zones, meets with zone officers Roxanne Christopher and Ray Lambert. *Photo by Nicola Muirhead

Amid mounting national debt, pressure to find new revenue streams and opportunities for economic growth is intensifying. This week and last we have taken a look at enterprize zones, which cut red tape for businesses and encourage trade and entrepreneurship. 

Here, Don Burgess looks at what our Economic Empowerment Zones do for islanders who want to set up a business. 


Economic empowerment. 

Everyone wants help to become successful, but sometimes obstacles are strewn in the way that make it more difficult to achieve that success.

That’s where the Economic Empowerment Zones come into play.

The Northeast Hamilton EEZ was created in 2007 with ones in St George’s and Somerset starting four years later.

Erica Smith, EEZ executive director, told the Bermuda Sun: “Government wanted to try and address some of the economic inequalities that were seen in Northeast Hamilton.”

Roxanne Christopher, economic officer for Northeast Hamilton EEZ, told the Bermuda Sun: “Historically, we can’t deny the area has been a bit forgotten.”

By being in an EEZ, businesses get several advantages.

One is the loan guarantor programme. 

Ms Smith said: “We have to leave $1m in the bank, which acts as capitalization for our loan guarantee programme. We have the ability to guarantee loans of up to half of $400,000. There have been some pretty significant loans that we’ve been guaranteeing.”

The EEZ, which is part of the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation, has ability to loan up to six times the $1m it has in the bank. 

“We have about $4.5 million in loans we’re guaranteed,” Ms Smith said. “There are about 65 businesses that have loans from us.”

The standard loan length is from five to seven years, with many of the original loans already paid off.

“We’ve had many success stories.”

The BEDC office’s walls are strewn with the photos of successful businesses that have already paid back their loans.

 “This is like our Wall of Fame. There are many more businesses that have paid back their guaranteed loans,” Ms Christopher chuckled: “Our walls aren’t that long. This is just some of the businesses that we have assisted that have satisfied their loan guarantee and our operating successful venture.”

Preferential

“We have negotiated preferential lending rates from HSBC and Butterfield for commercial and residential lending in Northeast Hamilton. There’s probably about $30m in loans we’ve negotiated for that area alone, in which people have been able to take advantage of the lowest interest rates on the island.”

Ms Smith said the EEZ also provides incentives and concessions, helps with payroll tax, custom’s duty deferment programme, and micro loan programme.

Ray Lambert. St Gorge’s EEZ officer,  said loans are only one part of the massive amount of help the EEZ gives. 

“We have many people approach us for meetings and discussions.”

He said some of those are unofficial meetings that happen when one of the officers is doing a walkabout in an EEZ with many just seeking information.

“We can answer those questions in ways that helps that business tremendously and make a decision, which isn’t in the numbers,” he said. 

Mr Lambert said one example was through the entrepreneurship class he teaches. “One of my students knew what she wanted to do from the first day of class. She took the time to write the plan but through the process and the discussion realized just how saturated her industry was. She saw through the downturn in the economy and other factors, saw that starting a business was not a good decision. 

“At the end of the class she told me ‘I really enjoyed the class, but what it taught me was my business was not ready for the island right now’.”

“She was grateful that she didn’t go out on her own and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing her business. It’s not just about passion because it is important but you also have to use common sense.”

“We do the checks and balances with them to make sure they do the decision that’s best for them.”

The number one thing entrepreneurs need beside cash is advice, expertise, and support.

Ms Christopher said: “A lot of people are great at what they do and what they know, but they are unfamiliar with the administration, mandatory Government requirements and all things required to operate a business in Bermuda. 

“They are unsure on how to secure a lease; What types of things should they be looking for when they are reading any potential leases?”

She said this can be particularly tricky if a person is the first entrepreneur in their family.

“Advice and guidance is a major part of what we do on a day-today basis.”

Another thing the BEDC and EEZ does for businesses  is act as an advocate for them.

Challenges

“People may have challenges with their landlords, with their vendors, with HR issues or immigration issues,” Ms Christopher said. “So we support that business in a very holistic situation.

“We go over and beyond the call of duty to provide the support that can get that business on the path to success.”

Another way the BEDC is helping is through its partnership with Capital G to offer micro loans to qualified applicants. 

Additionally, $100,000 in funds has been set aside to facilitate small loans in amounts ranging from $2,000 up to $7,500.  

The product was developed in response to an identified gap in the lending market. The BEDC recognized that businesses were in need of financial assistance for small loan amounts that the banks would not typically finance for commercial purposes.  

So the BEDC will not only fully secure these loans by offering 100 per cent guarantees, but will also offer a financial product that can also be used by vendor and peddler business owners, thereby also supporting the development of micro-enterprise in the island.

Ms Smith said: “The key thing about this product is it allows vendors to apply for loans and that’s unheard of in Bermuda where someone who doesn’t have an actual shop front could apply for a loan. We’re very proud of that.”