The Nassau Straw Market Puzzle

First Published: 2007-09-03

According to one source, the World Famous Nassau Straw Market has its roots in the Market House where "fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and sponges" were traded in the early 1900’s. Eventually the fish vendors moved to Potter’s Cay and only straw and other craft vendors remained. In 1962 Market House was condemned; and it burned down in 1974. A new market was built in 1980 and it burned down in 2001. Today the market exists a couple hundred feet west under a huge tent.

Some argue that tourists love the straw market and contend that it is a cultural icon and should be rebuilt. Others argue that the straw market is overrun with foreign workers who produce and/or sell very little native straw or craftwork. So…"Why spend millions of dollars to rebuild a straw market on prime down town property?" That’s the puzzle!

The Facts

To sort through the puzzle, The Nassau Institute commissioned a brief study that determined the following:

• Vendors must apply for a license to operate in the straw market and no non-Bahamian is issued one. The application specifies the type of products to be sold; but there is no requirement that the products sold be Bahamian although that is a stated Government intent.

• Vendors pay a business license and an annual stall rental fee of $100. However, the records of such payments are not current, are being updated and cannot be examined. The rules and regulations governing the conduct and operation of vendor stalls also are not available for review because they are being updated.

• Although the Ministry of Works has assigned 605 vendors stalls in the straw market, it appears that there are some 590 stalls operating. But counting stalls is difficult; often one person attends more than one stall; and there is no visible stall numbering or a clear demarcation between stalls.

• While ‘sub-renting’ of stalls is illegal, there is no enforcement of this regulation and vendors are reluctant to comment on this practice.

• It appears that the stalls are operated by mostly Haitian and Jamaican females and vendors suggest that less than 5% of salespersons are of Bahamian birth. Apparently the Haitian and Jamaican employees do have either work or residency permits.

• A non-scientific yet careful survey of 42 stalls shows 19% of the products sold are made of straw; 13% of the products sold are Bahamian, 52% of the stalls sell no straw products and 50% of the stalls sampled sell no Bahamian products.

The vendors claim that –

• Selling in the straw market is profitable to the licensed vendors.

• It is more profitable to sell foreign-made products.

• Bahamian products are of poorer quality and the supply is less reliable.

• The most profitable selling products are ‘knock-offs’…imitations of brand name products…that sell for less than half the name brand price. Some stalls sell only ‘knock-offs’ and this includes illegal copies of recently released movies that sell for as little as $5 each.

• Financial services are sold by vendors and outsiders within the straw market. These services include "Asue", loans, foreign currency exchange and lottery numbers. It is reported that "Asue" groups with draws from $5,000 up to $20,000 are not uncommon; and short-term loans for up to a month are available.

Clearly the term ‘straw market’ is a misnomer, the products sold are mostly non-Bahamian and tourists meet exclusively non-Bahamian sales-people.

Key Questions to Solve the Puzzle

1. Why should the country use premier income-generating property for the Government to build a complex for 605 vendors who reportedly do not pay their rent at the expense of other business people and taxpayers who do?

2. Shouldn’t the vendors use their own expertise and money to build and manage their own complex?

3. Don’t law enforcement, an efficient judicial system and a drastically improved education system have a higher priority for Government funding than a straw market?

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