Books about Anguilla


Saturday, 22 May 2010

Comments of the Brimigen Project Proposal

There seems to be a “mother lode” of issues that I can write about regarding this new Government --- as I grow steadily into my label as “The Journalist”. However, I think that it is imperative that I respond to a number of policy statements/proposals advanced by the Honourable Chief Minister and reinforced by his son the Honourable Parliamentary Secretary, Haydn Hughes.

During the election campaign the CM spoke about having a plan that he would release after the election --- a plan that, by his own expression “would turn this country around in a matter of weeks”. It was this plan that encouraged a number of eager Anguillians, frustrated by the economic downturn to support the AUM. Of course this was in addition to the ongoing refrain that the situation was caused by the past government and in particular the former Minister of Finance.

My curiosity was also peaked by the promise of a ready solution --- and I am now like so many other Anguillians left to speculate as to what that plan may be.

Of course we heard that Salamander would give the Government some 3.5 million US dollars to meet its economic challenges --- and eventually step in to be the saviour of the Flag Project. Over the weekend that vain wish went “out the window”, as correspondence reaching us have revealed that Salamander has no intentions to proceed any more with negotiations on FLAG. But that is a matter for future discussion.

But the main topic which I must address --- as I speculate about Hubert’s plan --- is his continued talk about a new airport in Brimigen and which his son Haydn in a report on his plans for Tourism affirmed was back on the table. I can also talk about the ludicrous plan for bringing water and electricity from St. Martin --- but again that is a matter for another presentation.

I must also express that the idea of building an airport in Brimigen was one espoused not only by the coalition Government of 1994 – 1999 --- but also by the Hon. James Ronald Webster government in 1981 – 1984. I was a Minister in both of those Governments. Both of those Governments discussed this project as an option to the development of the Wallblake Airport at a time when it was believed that a “green field” site would be more practical. I should also add that in 1988 Mr. Webster presented another option in his Anguillians for Good Government Manifesto --- the option of building the airport on Scrub Island.

The Honourable Chief Minister has long held the view that some “fairy godperson” would build an airport facility for Anguilla. His idea started in 1995 when he met with an Aruban Minister of Economic Development who showed an interest in providing finance, through an Aruban Development Bank, for an entity to be established in Anguilla which would build such a facility on a “BOOT” (i.e. Build Own Operate &Transfer) basis. The negotiations fell through when the Aruban Minister was unable to get the support of his ministerial colleagues.

Again in 1996 he approached a British consultant by the name of John de Upaugh --- who he was convinced could provide the finance for an airport project. Again the financing plan never got off the ground.

By 1997, a President of the Chamber of Commerce of Guadeloupe showed an interest in the project. Please bear in mind that the Chamber of Commerce in Guadeloupe is in fact a quasi- government department financed, jointly by contributions from registered businesses and the government, and capable of leveraging finance from government agencies and regional and international development banks.

It was always a matter of concern for my ministerial colleague, the Honourable Edison Baird and myself to figure out how these financing arrangements would work --- given the axiom that “you don’t get anything for nothing”. Eventually, in November 1998, the President of the Chamber presented us with a memorandum of agreement which outlined that a consortium of businesses from the Guadeloupe Chamber of Commerce would provide us access to funding provided that the Government of Anguilla would, among other things, grant them approval to develop 5,000 hotel rooms over a five year period on Anguilla.

It was at this point that Mr. Baird and I decided that this was not a viable opinion. My own reaction was driven by the following reasons:

• 5,000 hotel rooms in five years departed from the accepted and longstanding policy of “low volume high value” tourism.

• 5,000 hotel rooms meant a considerable demand for labour in the construction phase and using the formula of three workers per room up to 15,000 in the operational phase.

• The Guadeloupe Chamber would be owning/controlling a considerable part of Anguilla’s infrastructure and tourism plant.

• Government would need to acquire several hundred acres of land and conceivably relocate a number of homes.

• Government would have to reroute and develop a number of roads and utility systems.

• The British Government was not supportive of such an expansive project based on the capacity of the government to maintain that level of debt.

During its tenure of office beginning in 2000, the AUF Government was faced with the challenge of attracting investment into Anguilla after the recession of 2000 and the impact on the tourism industry in the wake of the 911 terrorist attacks. As a part of our strategic plan for economic recovery in 2002 --- we recognized that both public sector and private sector investment was necessary to bring about a turnaround in our economy. The critical public sector project identified for this purpose was the Wallblake Airport Expansion project. In fact all potential investors insisted that they would not be prepared to proceed unless they received some confirmation that this project would be delivered within an agreed time frame. On the Government side we needed to design a project that was manageable and deliverable from available resources. We recognized that the expensive options of Brimigen or Scrub Island were not viable so we put together a financing plan that met with FCO approval. It was a plan which was consistent with both the immediate and the longer term needs of our Tourism Sector and was fitted with our “tested and tried” “low volume high value” tourism product.

The Airport Expansion project was delivered on time and within budget and fulfilled the objectives of attracting major investment to Anguilla. All compliments must go to the constantly maligned WAEP project team, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development. It was in fact the largest public sector project ever undertaken on Anguilla and the main pillar of the economic boom that we enjoyed during 2003 to 2008.

The present Chief Minister has been arguing that the Wallblake Airport is a failed project and that it has not provided the required access support for our tourism industry. He then proceeds to suggest that what we really need is an airport in Brimigen that can take international commercial flights. I have also heard one talk show host who supports this government talking about making Anguilla a hub.

As I listened, her guest on the show Mr. Sutcliffe Hodge appeared to be not supportive of her thesis --- to the extent that he quite correctly pointed out the tremendous cost of such a project. What seems clear is that a number of close advisors to the Chief Minister have not taken the time to research the travel trade and the airline industry or even further try to be conversant with the issues affecting access to our destination.

I am certain that the general public is aware that there is another phase to the Wallblake expansion project which would provide an additional 600 feet. This would create the capacity for any access arrangements which the industry would require now or in the distant future. It is also well known that there is already in place a master plan which includes the implementation of the facilities for the private jet service operator (commonly known as an FBO) as well as extended apron and parking facilities, and a new terminal facility. These plans are in keeping with the requirements of our tourism industry.

All of the foregoing was presented to illustrate that while in 1981 and 1994 the idea of a “green field” site may have had some merit, however marginal, we have come a long way since that time. Furthermore, it is improbable that the Government of Anguilla could make a successful business case for developing a new international airport as a hub in such close proximity to Juliana Airport. But there are some even more compelling reasons against it in the Chief Minister’s own arguments which makes the proposition illogical even incongruous as follows:

• The Chief Minister has been accusing the past Government of “racking up” an enormous debt burden now he proposes to spend more than five times the total national debt on a one project.

• The Chief Minister is saying that the present facility is unsustainable yet he is talking about building a larger facility that will require many more landings to make it feasible.

• The Chief Minister is talking about bringing water and electricity from St. Martin yet he is not prepared to use the well-developed access from the Juliana Airport.

• The Chief Minister talks about supporting Anguilla businesses yet he seems prepared to overlook the investment that young Anguillian entrepreneurs have put into the airline industry and its support services to meet our unique circumstances.

• The Chief Minister continues to speak about foreign control of the economy yet he is prepared to agree to bring in a French agency and a private consortium to control the air transport sector and own a huge percentage of the tourism plant.

• The Chief Minister talks about rapid development yet he is prepared to agree to building out more than three times the present room capacity in five years.

• The Chief Minister is constantly talking about the borrowing guidelines yet he seems to be negotiating a project without regard for compliance with the key principles associated with them.

I have used the terms incongruous and illogical to describe the arguments that are being put forward to support building a new airport in Brimigen. Since we already have a facility that can meet our air transport sector needs --- especially when the expansion phases are implemented --- it would seem more logical and practical that we consider the construction of a very essential Seaport facility being proposed for Corito.

I want to again take the opportunity to thank the residents and property owners of the George Hill, Statia Valley, Long Ground, Forest, and Rey Hill communities for the contribution they have made so as to provide for the implementation and operation of the Wallblake Airport to meet the air access needs of Anguilla. I am confident that your contribution will never be considered a vain sacrifice. And for other Anguillians and those who have an interest in our country I remain supremely confident that the Brimigen Airport Project will neither take-off or land. No pun intended!

Victor F. Banks
Sachasses Estate
May 11, 2010

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“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” – MLK.