July 8th 2009: Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves told an invited audience at the National Insurance Services’ Conference Room, Kingstown about the progress of planning, etc., of the Argyle international airport.
At the time, he said, “the most recent estimate of the project is EC$589 million”.
Under the heading “How is all this being financed?” Gonsalves told us “Financing of this airport project is not for the faint of heart; it requires a combination of courage, sound policy, creativity and steadfast commitment.
He further said: “When I elaborated this airport plan on August 8th 2005, I explained then that we will finance the airport with a mix of money from my government, and a large amount of grants from other friendly governments…
“To date, the financing plan has unfolded in very much the way I laid it out then.”
Not in 2013; it hasn’t. Not at all. Nothing like it.
Well that was then. He told us “from my government, and a large amount of grants from other friendly governments”. He said nothing of borrowing millions upon millions for the project. Not a word about that. Where are all the grants from friendly governments?
To quantify the investment “from my government”, he said, “You may recall that my government’s contribution to the Argyle airport project came mainly from the sale of Crown lands vested in the IADC. … IADC in turn appointed National Properties, a wholly owned government company to sell these lands on its behalf. … The funds raised from National Properties’ land sales activities are to be used by the IADC to purchase the properties and vacant lands on the airport site, and to meet other project related expenditure.”
Again not even a hint of borrowing money, not a hint of involving the NIS. And even worse, having got all that money the IADC failed to pay the 60 landowners for their lands.
The current estimated cost of the airport is EC$652 million and rapidly heading for the magical EC$1 billion.
Under the heading “Negotiations with and Relocation of Homeowners”, he told us “Most would recall that in my meetings with the affected property owners I gave them the assurance that my government will be fair to them in terms of the price they are paid for their properties. I also made it clear, on several occasions, that no property owner would be made worse off as a result of having to sell his or her property to the government for the airport project.”
The problem with that statement is that some 6 years after their land was taken some, 60 landowners still haven’t been paid for their land in 2013. People have died unpaid, some unable to afford medical treatment, some unable to send their children for tertiary education, because no land means no income. And what is worse if or when they are eventually paid, they can claim no interest or compensation.
Gonsalves later went on to say, “With regards to the vacant lands in the airport zone, my government took the decision to acquire all the lands within the first kilometre of the runway so that IADC can take possession and begin construction, while negotiations for compensation take place.”
Then he furthered said, “In a similar way, we will also acquire the vacant land parcels within the second and third kilometres. Even so, I expect the government negotiator, the Chief Surveyor, to continue to offer land owners a fair price for all lands acquired for the airport in Mt Pleasant and Argyle”.
Gonsalves decided to give himself a pat on the back when he said, “In terms of grant funding, my government has been extremely successful in attracting support for the project. Indeed, never before in the history of our country have we so expertly made use of our brains, and our foreign policy, to such good effect!”
What grant funding is he talking about? It’s but a “halfpenny worth” in the scheme of things. He keeps missing out any reference to the huge loans.
Talking of the terminal building, he said, “It will have about 10,000 square metres of floor space, to handle 1.4 million passengers annually”. He went on to say, “this airport will allow us direct flights to North, Central and South America, and Europe, using commercial jets as large as the Boeing 747-400s”.
Now if we analyse the passenger number 1.4 million passengers annually, that amounts to 116,667 passengers a month, 26,923 a week, and 3,846 a day. That is about 10 wide-bodied jets a day (400 seats each), or 80 of LIATS new aircraft (48-seat ATR-42-600s, 48-seat ATR-42-600s and the 68-seat ATR 72-600) a day, or a mix of both. Whichever way you look at it that is a lot of people and a lot of aeroplanes. Is it possible? Is it?
If these figures are correct we will require about 10 big new hotels to accommodate these huge numbers. There may even be room for Mr. Morgan and his Chinese partner to have their casino, remember that discussion on this medium.
Having looked at St. Lucia’s air figures for December 2012, I found a total of 700 aircraft arrived delivering 27,909 arrivals (around 400 each flight). The Argyle figure for a month is 116,667. Is it possible that our arrivals will be four times that of Saint Lucia? Is it possible? I don’t know what the Barbados figures are for December 2012, but if they are three times that of St. Lucia, our figures still beat Barbados by 32,940. Is it possible we will ever have 33,000 more air arrivals in a month than Barbados? Is it possible?
Knowing Barbados airport quite well, I cannot, for the life of me, find any comparison between Barbados and Argyle, Argyle is like a toy garage I use to own as a small child. Will Argyle ever be able to do those numbers? Will they?
Gonsalves said that “the forum is well attended by several regional and international airlines, many of which we will continue to court to have them add St. Vincent to their routes”. He continued, “the process of marketing our new airport will therefore pick up over the next two and a half years, as we develop and implement an aggressive marketing campaign to bring new airlines here”.
Well here we are in 2013, four years have passed since 2009, and the only airlines announced by the PM, is the fifth rate Venezuelan state airline, Conviasa Airline, which was banned from Europe in the recent past for air safety matters. Is this what he is really suggesting as our flag bearer? Our top of the line airline?
So after that, I contacted my aviation man, a man that can open any door in the aviation world. I asked him to speak to his contacts in five top airlines, three British and two U.S. The feedback from all but one was they would not even consider SVG as a route. One of the British said they would fly in on a twice-weekly basis for a subsidy payment monthly in advance by our authorities of US$200 a seat, full or empty. That’s US$80,000 flights inbound; no seat charge outbound. Barbados paid US$100 a seat for years, until they finally established a fairly steady flow rate of passengers. Now, in my reckoning, that’s US$ 640,000 monthly in advance — an expense that could go on for years. That doesn’t even guarantee that the airline will carry any passengers, and a cost of almost US$8 million a year (EC$21.5 million) and that’s just one airline from one country.
If we could convince a U.S. and a Canadian airline to do the same, perhaps we will get some tourist and visitor arrivals. That could only be good, if we can afford it in the short to mid term.
Just before his closing speech, Gonsalves said, “Cuba and Venezuela were among the first two countries to lend support to the airport project. Both President Fidel Castro of Cuba and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela pledged their countries’ resources to assisting with the preliminary studies, airport designs and to complete the earth works component of the project. These commitments are estimated at EC$280 million.”
Well where are their countries resources? we are borrowing from Venezuela and paying the wages of the Cubans.
He said, “Trinidad and Tobago also made a grant of US$10 million (EC$27 million). …Taiwan too has pledged a substantial amount of financial support to the airport project. In a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed on 7th June 2006, the government of Taiwan pledged a grant of US$15 million and a soft loan of US$10 million to the airport project to finance the Terminal Buildings, Control Tower, Roads and Support Systems component of the airport project. …
“On 31st July 2007, in another signed MOU, Taiwan pledged a further US$5 million in grant to this project, bringing its total financial contribution to US$30 million. …In July 2008, I revisited Taiwan to meet with the new President Ma, who reaffirmed, in writing, his government’s support to the Argyle International Airport project and further promised to give favourable consideration to any requests we might make for additional funding, if the circumstances so require.”
He said, “Support for the project has also come from Austria, US$185,000, Mexico, for technical support with our Master Plan. Several other countries have pledged support, in one form or another. These include: Mexico, Malaysia, Turkey, Portugal, Iran, and Libya”.
Wow so where is it?
Gonsalves made these concluding remarks and appeal: “As you can see, we are well on our way towards the realisation of our dream.”
We were not.
“I have recounted the plans that I laid out on August 8th 2005, and our progress towards the achievement of those plans.”
Those plans never included borrowing all that money.
“I commit to you today, to continue to work steadfastly towards the completion of our international airport by the end of March 2012.”
It’s now 2013 and it’s doubtful it will be finished in 2015, if at all the way the economy is going.
“And today, I also invite you all, Vincentians at home and abroad, to join me in this noble endeavour. … I have said before that we cannot invite people to help us build our home, while we stand and watch them work. We must put a hand ourselves. … I entreat you to give generously to this most noble and deserving project, remembering that when you give, you are giving to yourself, your children, and your children’s children.”
I don’t think so; I really don’t think so. I believe my grand children’s grand children will be paying for this project. Badly thought out by someone who has lost most people’s respect because his naivety and lack of reality. Some of you may think it’s worse than that. I will leave you all to your own beliefs.
I think the best possible thing we can do is renege on all the loans that Gonsalves has taken for the airport, ask for debt forgiveness, if they do not play ball just stop paying. At least a new incoming government could get some forgiveness if they plead the incompetence and recklessness of the previous administration (the ULP). Because it’s very obvious that there is no way on this living earth that we can ever repay the volume of debt that we are now saddled with.
I doubt we will ever repay Iran or Iraq or Libya what we owe them, the political situation is such, they will never be organised enough to claim what their previous rulers shelled out. As for Venezuela, Cuba and the ALBA Bank, we can just knock them from the perspective of “fraternal comradeship”.
Mind you, I do not think that Cuba ever gave us any cash. That is just paper moving around a table.
My worry is still for the 60 landowners at Argyle who have not been paid. Will they ever be paid and when?
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