The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].
When word of the construction of an international airport on St. Vincent Island was first announced, many Vincentians saw this as a welcoming need and a long overdue necessity.
In the past, various sites were proposed and looked into by the Milton Cato and then James Mitchell governments. Plans were drawn up and moneys were presumably allocated, but sadly none of it ever came to fruition never materialised and was eventually abandoned and shelved without any worthwhile explanations. Simply stated, St. Vincent wasn’t ready for or didn’t need an international airport at this time.
The shift in a different direction were to extend the E.T. Joshua Airport at Arnos Vale in the hope that this might supplement immediate needs, and would be able to accommodate larger aircraft. Two companies, one from Germany the other Canada, carried out a few studies but “all the conducted studies show a recurring theme of the technical unsuitability and lack of financial and economic viability for the expansion of the existing E.T. Joshua Airport at Arnos Vale”. Sadly, Vincentians would still have to put up with the daunting task of flying into Barbados’ Grantley Adams Airport, or St Lucia’s Hewanorra or Point Saline in Grenada and learn to cherish these inconveniences by patiently waiting for the connecting flight aboard a LIAT aircraft to St. Vincent.
All of this was not an easy and comfortable passage for most, and oftentimes led to some kind of hassle, either by missing one’s connecting flight because of delays or bad weather, or some uncalled for wrangling and insults from custom agents or rude airline clerks stationed at these airports , or having to overnight in that country against ones will.
With the removal of the Mitchell government and coming into office of the Unity Labour Party (ULP) and the Gonsalves administration in 2001, the international airport would fast become a reality. The new Gonsalves administration “began to put measures in place to ease the air access problem that has, for many years retarded the growth of the country”.
In a speech dated Aug. 8, 2005, delivered at the Methodist Church Hall in Kingstown, PM Gonsalves unveiled his plans for the immediate implementation and construction of an international airport on mainland St. Vincent. He stated as follows:
“Having studied this issue for many years, it is clear to the ULP administration and its leadership that the full realisation of the potential of our country’s growth and development hinge on an international airport, among other vital considerations. The requisites of economic diversification and regional and international competitiveness demand an international airport.
“Our country’s tourism potential would not be fully realized unless we build an international airport. And tourism is likely to be our main foreign exchange earner for a long time to come. Further, the integration of the economy of St Vincent and the Grenadines with those of the OECS, CARICOM, the wider Caribbean, Latin America, North America and Europe is limited to the extent that there are huge restraints in air access. Foreign investors often shy away from St Vincent and the Grenadines when the limitations of air access arise due to the absence of an international airport.
“Indeed, at the recently-concluded Conference of Heads of State and Government of CARICOM in July 2005, I made the point that the absence of an international airport in St Vincent and the Grenadines and Dominica is a regional integration issue of the first order. There can be no level playing-field for this reason, among others. Moreover, air access difficulties constitute a practical brake on the movement of our nationals who reside in North America and Europe in returning to their homeland as frequently as many of them would like. The international airport will engender a greater oneness between the components of our nation at home and overseas in much the same way as the easy availability of advanced telecommunications facilities has done”.
Following up on these studies, their feasibility and the best sites option available, including Langley Park, Buccament Bay, Kitchen, Villa, etc. for constructing an airport, most were eventually passed over as “were not economically feasible”, and Argyle was chosen as the sustainable option and got the green light, the go ahead.
Why Argyle? According to PM Gonsalves, of all the sites examined with the exception of Kitchen, Argyle topped them all in most respects — “while both Kitchen and Argyle are suitable locations from a technical and aeronautical standpoint for the sitting of an international airport, Kitchen is substantially more expensive than Argyle. Partly for this reason, the Kitchen site was not considered as an economically feasible option in the most recent study (up to date) on the issue by the MMM consultants”. (Now WSP/MMM consultants out of Toronto Canada who conducted “a study of airport development on mainland St. Vincent in 97-98”)
Argyle site, having now been thrown into the public’s pot of controversy, begins to develop within the framework of “getting the funding”, and “not getting the funding” in carrying out the largest project in the history of the nation. Argyle was to become the “happenings” the most talked about event in little St. Vincent and the Grenadines. As a result of this and in combination with other socio-political beefs, the country was now split down the middle between the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) who opposed the airport’s construction and the ULP and its supporters who favoured it. (I recall a story told by the PM, that when he approached world leaders and financiers, including the late President Chavez of Venezuela and President Castro of Cuba, Chavez, after visiting the site, and viewing the monumental task ahead , and the planning that will have to be undertaken to build an airport, said to him “… are you loco”? But on the urging of Castro, drawn from the studies, the feasibility and technical aspects of the project urged Chavez to lend assistance.) Cuba sent in its engineers, and Venezuela sent in some heavy equipment and personnel.
Following on the heels of Cuba and Venezuela, “the coalition of the willing” including Taiwan, Mexico, Iran, Libya, Turkey, Trinidad and Tobago, CARICOM, etc.; (the United States and Canada were approached but did not get involved), were put in place and began to give financial and technical assistance to the SVG government, and the International Airport Development Company, headed by Chairman Dr. Rudy Matthias, was organised by the government to manage the project. Most of this didn’t sit well with the opposition NDP, and through economic fear and political hysteria echoed the now famous words, “what will the U.S. say”?
As they moved into Parliament to debate on the matter, the writing was already on the wall that they were going to oppose the financing and construction of the Argyle International Airport. This also led to the outlandish wild allegations by members of the opposition and many supporters, that this “was just another election stunt” by Gonsalves and the ULP leading up to the 2010 general elections, and the cry of “can we afford it” echoed on social media and in public and private discussions. Nevertheless the Gonsalves administration was not to be deterred and the ground breaking began in July of 2008.
At the ground breaking ceremony, Dr. Rudy Matthias had this to say: “Many persons have cornered me and asked the (same) question… ‘Rudy tell me man, is between me and you: we really getting this airport?’
“I can tell you as I have told everyone who has asked me that question. We are building an International airport. And today marks a giant step in that direction”.
In spite of the high cost and being the largest ever project undertaken in the history of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, (somewhere in the area of $500 million EC, which jumped to around $729 million due to the accompanying unforeseen 2008 worldwide economic crisis), work began and what was to be accomplished forthwith will turn out to be a near miraculous undertaking.
As indicated by PM Gonsalves, “building the airport involved the astounding removal of three mountains, 134 homes, a church, a cemetery and the filling of two valleys”. Locals who were familiar with the “before” picture of Argyle, are still in awe with the near final completion. Words like “boy that is a miracle…”, and “gee whiz! how
did they do that? Move them three mountains and divert a river, spam a valley, and relocate a cemetery, boy Ralph Gonsalves is a “boss man”, wow”!
Moreover, NDP Vice-President St. Clair Leacock, who in the past was one of the most vocal anti- Argyle airport proponents had to admit in his own words, ”… if NDP win we should name it (Argyle airport) after him (PM Ralph Gonsalves), he’s done enough, he has done enough. I don’t mince my words on these things you know. If he lost government and we were to complete that, he has done enough. I’m not going to take away from him. I had driven across Argyle; it is a tremendous amount of work that has happened there. It’s almost approaching miracles in some instances what we (sic) have achieved. I’m not underestimating that”!
Argyle International Airport is slated to open in 2016, and most Vincentians are anxiously awaiting that glorious grand opening. Those at home and abroad will definitely be on hand to celebrate with the government and all those who made this a reality.
Coalition’s dignitaries and CARICOM ministers will also be in attendance to witness the landing of the first commercial flight. What a glorious day that will be for St Vincent and the Grenadines.
Argyle International Airport from conception to completion will go down in history as another “Wonder Of The Modern World”!
Reggie (Vinciman) Wright
The views expressed herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions or editorial position of iWitness News. Opinion pieces can be submitted to [email protected].