Despite the fact that most successful businesses become preoccupied with the “bottom line” to determine the product and services they will provide --- it is fair to say that, for the most part, successive Tourism Boards and Governments of Anguilla were still able to develop an amicable working relationship with the key decision makers of American Airlines. Of course there were mutual interests operating in the relationship as well --- because Anguilla as a destination provided for a very high percentage of the “first class travelers” coming into the main San Juan hub. In other words, many of the passengers sitting in the front of the aircraft were bound for Anguilla. Obviously, a number of factors have resulted in the decision by American Airlines to withdraw its service to Anguilla, not the least among which must be the decrease in viable business to our destination. On this count one would wish to question whether there was any possibility for retaining some level of service, especially given the report that Nevis is still being served. However, given the paucity of facts on the issue, far be it from me to attempt cast judgment.
What I must say however, is that American Airlines has served our destination for over twenty-three years and even if there were times when we have had differences or may have felt that we were less than adequately served --- they did make a significant difference. And if nothing more, we can truly say that the staff worked diligently and faithfully for Anguilla, despite the challenges from time to time. It is in this light that I am forced to comment, since I did not see a single member of the Government present at the final take-off, at least to show appreciation and to wish, the now unemployed staff, well. And I sincerely hope that the glum faces I saw yesterday, even as I thanked them and wished them well, will receive some acknowledgement from Government that will cheer their hearts, as they face the challenges that will certainly attend them in this difficult period ahead.
That entire episode yesterday gave me cause for reflection. I recalled the period during the Airport Expansion Project when the Eagle flights had to be suspended for a considerable period of time due to the rehabilitation of the runway, thus causing the staff to be without a paycheck for that period. Accepting that it was neither the fault of the workers or American Airlines, our Government took up the responsibility to provide various forms of compensation for affected workers, including temporary jobs. This was in keeping with our pledge that everyone affected by the Expansion Project would be treated decently and with due respect to their inconveniences.
But the episode also caused me to shudder when I contemplated on how genuine efforts by our Government to compensate people in a decent and equitable manner for the way they were affected by the project --- resulted in dissatisfaction, resentment, jealousy, and most of all unfair and unfounded accusations of corruption. It also made me remember that just last week in the House of Assembly the Chief Minister was still making the same ridiculous statement that the British Government sabotaged his efforts to get the French to build a new airport for Anguilla in Brimigen. And as I continued to reflect I had to smile when the reality crossed my mind that some people build great monuments and construct magnificent edifices for other people to name.
But the Airport Expansion was not about short-term individual reactions it was about long-term national development issues. It is therefore sufficient for those of us who contributed to delivering the largest infrastructural project for Anguilla to see how it has evolved and how it has enhanced travel to our destination. In these terms, every time a private jet takes off or lands at the Capt. Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport --- we feel a sense of pride and accomplishment. And I am moved to remind those of you who were not present at the Official Opening of Airport Expansion on January 29, 2005 of that proud moment. I was given the privilege to be the Key Note Speaker at that auspicious occasion and I now present to you a glimpse of that moment along with the history and the landscape surrounding it in a slightly edited excerpt from that address as follows:
“For many years the previous Government of which I was a part had pursued the option of a “green field site” in Brimigen for airport development. While that former Chief Minister still holds on to the unrealistic belief that a private consortium out of Guadeloupe would build such an airport at no cost to the GOA, the reality is that such a choice would have cost the people of Anguilla over three hundred million US dollars at conservative estimates. But more significantly because a prerequisite for the project was that 5000 additional hotel rooms would need to be built in Anguilla over a five-year period ---- such an undertaking would have dramatically changed our tourism product and indeed the entire face of the Anguillian community as we know it today.
The road to implementation was not an easy one. The project was required at a time when the financial position of the Government was at its lowest point exacerbated by the world wide economic recession, the aftermath of Hurricane Lenny and eventually the fallout effects of 9/11. The first order of business therefore was to put our financial house in order and the Ministry of Finance set about doing so with the support of the entire Government. This entailed a comprehensive strategy for restoring fiscal stability in Anguilla. This was achieved to the extent that from the period 2002 to 2004 we were able to turn the fiscal situation around from an accumulated deficit on the recurrent budget of EC$20 million at the end of 2001 to a surplus of EC$22 million at the end of 2004.
A second challenge was to convince the British Government that our financing plan including borrowing was feasible, because they had already informed us that no grant assistance for the works component of the project would be forthcoming only for technical design and supervision. That contribution is less than ten percent of the overall project cost.
But we persevered and because of our strong fiscal performance and persuasive arguments we got the approval of HMG to borrow up to fifteen million USD for the project. In this context, we must thank ScotiaBank and the European Development Fund for participating in a creative financing arrangement which at the end of the day will result in the GOA and people of Anguilla only having to repay five million USD for this project over a ten-year period. To put it clearly and simply ---- this project will in fact only cost the people of Anguilla five million USD in debt financing from local revenue sources.
A third challenge was the need for Government equity in the project. This presented much controversy as the Ministry of Finance decided that the only way to obtain such equity would be from the sale of some Government assets. Government not being a large landowner in Anguilla the only saleable assets were its shares in the Anglec utility. Again we got opposition from without and within but at the end of the day we prevailed and our assets yielded some sixteen million ECD which enabled us to meet our counterpart financing requirements acquire land and relocate residents out of the airport zone. Government now still owns more than forty percent of the utility. The remainder is for the most part in the hands of Anguillians and Anguillian institutions.
A fourth challenge was dealing with residents and landowners whose properties were necessary for the airport expansion. I must thank those residents and landowners of the Forest, Rey Hill, Long Ground, Coritot, Statia Valley, George Hill, Little Harbour and Wallblake communities who were extremely cooperative in this national development effort. They were of course some individuals who had differences with the process and have exercised their right to object. One such matter is still in the judicial system and another being negotiated. While these still remain challenges we have been forced to be creative and despite the fact that our airport will cost us more to extend to the west ----- the need to re-profile has in a way been a blessing in disguise. We now have a runway facility that has less landing obstructions than the original design. Hopefully, in the future we can eventually achieve our desired length of 6000 feet.
A fifth challenge was to get maximum local participation in the construction of the project. Obviously the successful “tenderer” would want to get maximum returns from the contract and as such would want to control as much of the works as possible. Government therefore negotiated that local heavy equipment, trucks and labour would be utilized as far as possible. While this negotiation process had many hitches ---- at the end of the day I believe that local operators were reasonably satisfied. And though the early stages were trying, effective communication and dialogue between the Local Project Team, the Contractor and the Supervising Consultant brought all these issues to a satisfactory conclusion.
A sixth challenge and perhaps the most trying were the people issues. The project manager and his team must be commended for the stressful task which they survived as they were exposed to attacks from both without and within. Including physical threats of a serious nature. The pressures came from area residents, truckers, heavy-equipment operators, relocated families, airline operators, airport concessionaires, hoteliers, government officials, the press and politicians. No one would have believed that this aspect of the project rather than the actual works would have been the most demanding. I believe however, that the team is now better equipped to move to the next major project, perhaps, our new seaport project in Coritot.
The final challenge that I will mention and one that still remains, is dealing with our many detractors as well as Anguilla’s 12,000 engineers. Comments abounded from all corners like: “ they gon have to buy a mountain from St. Martin to build that!” ; “ that gon flood out the Forest bottom and Statia Valley ” ; “the marl from the Coritot land fill is going to poison the people in the area” ; “the runway too short” ; They shoulda build the runway on columns” ; “It shoulda been in Brimigen”. Today it goes on. Several Anguillians are now becoming experts on the term “PCN”. A term that was non-existent in the Anguillian vernacular one week ago. Now the term “PCN” is inundating the airways and the political platforms. And by virtue of this newly found expertise the pundits are now declaring that the runway surface is inadequate for American Eagle and for private jets. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and although in Anguilla it is an astounding fact that physical evidence does not necessary lead to belief --- I am convinced that we are slowly but surely exposing the naysayers for who they are.
But, what of the future? When I spoke at the ground breaking ceremony of this project I promised that affected residents in the area would be treated decently over the duration of the project. I said that residents would be temporarily relocated; persons affected by dust from the project would be given air conditioning for the duration of the construction; cisterns affected would be drained, cleaned and replenished; we would pay for any cleaning services for homes affected by the dust; we would put screens in homes where required; we would pay affected entrepreneurs for loss of business etc. etc. To the chagrin and disappointment of our detractors we have kept our promises and the majority of the affected declare that government has been decent in the treatment that they dispensed.”
You may ask the question why did I quote so extensively from that presentation. Well, in addition to giving readers a glimpse of Anguilla in 2005 and the period leading up to it --- I also hoped to highlight how the Government of that period dealt with the challenges of that recession; negotiated with the British Government; formulated creative solutions for the effective project implementation; treated the persons affected by the project in an equitable manner, and; delivered one of the island’s largest infrastructural projects in time and within budget.
I believe that the details of that project stand in stark contrast to the manner in which things are happening in Anguilla today. The Government seems to be stumbling from error to error; blaming others rather than seeking solutions; bickering rather than negotiating; being politically spiteful rather than looking at the bigger picture. And all the while, hardships are increasing for the lower and middle-income workers; young men and women are frustrated and depressed to self-destruction, and; the government is ignoring the increasing inequities in our tax regime. Meanwhile the Chief Minister is posturing for the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC) in an interview captured on several regional media that “his Government needs to pursue independence”. As a very stressed young lady blurted out to me in a fleeting moment of obvious despair: “Tell me!” “When will it be over?”
Victor F. Banks