There is a different between the Government’s leasing of state-owned lands to non-nationals for almost a century and renting a property to a Vincentian for three decades, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves says.
He made the comments on Sunday as social commentator Philbert “PJohn” John quizzed him on radio about the decision of his Government to evict Ann Joshua from the building in Kingstown, where Cobblestone Inn has been located for the past 30 years.
Joshua is Gonsalves’ first cousin and began renting the building 15 years before his administration came to office and continued to do so for 15 years after.
But the Government wrote to her last week, giving her until Sept. 30, 2016 to leave the building, but offering no reason for ordering her to do so.
Gonsalves said Sunday that other persons should be given a chance to bid for occupancy, and Joshua could submit a bid.
But John contrasted Joshua’s tenancy to the use of other publicly-owned assets.
He said: “Mr Prime Minister, this is my difficulty: We lease land to foreign investors for 99 years and you are suggesting that a local can’t be in Government property for 30 years?”
But Gonsalves said he was “not saying that.
“Look at the difference: Young Island is leased for a longer period of time than 30 years. Now, what happens is this. You lease lands and you have a set of conditions under which the land is leased. For instance, when that land was leased, in the case of Canouan, they were supposed to invest minimum US$100 million, 40 per cent of which should be equity, that is to say, you bring in your own cash — don’t borrow that. So the persons who is developing must have some substance.”
Gonsalves said this is done as an alternative to selling the lands.
He said a person could bid for a multi-decade lease of Cobblestone, including in their bid an indication of how much they will spend to develop the property.
But John pressed the prime minister about whether this was communicated to Joshua.
He said that Harold Dougan, head of the National Properties Ltd., the state firm responsible for managing the building, told him that he had told Joshua that there would be a tendering process.
Gonsalves, however, said that Dougan had not written to Joshua any letter to that effect.
The prime minister said that Basil’s Bar, which is located on the ground floor of the building, will be subject to the same process.
“This is not an anti-Ann Joshua matter,” he said, adding that the bidding process is going to begin before Joshua vacates the property.
But iWitness News was reliably informed that the management of Basil’s Bar has not be written to or told in any way that they have to vacate the building, as is the case with Joshua.
Gonsalves accused Joshua of politicising the development, although news reports on the development quoted her as confirming receipt of the letter and that her rent of EC$24,000 a month was current and that she had no additional comments to make.
Gonsalves suggested that Joshua herself had had enough of running the hotel.
“But what tells me that Ann may not want to continue. If she wants to continue, why politicise a normal relationship?”
But John asked Gonsalves why he was saying that she was politicising the issue and noted to the prime minister that there was nothing in the media to suggest that she was doing so.
“My brother, my brother, … with great respect, don’t behave as though you are on Mars,” said Gonsalves, sounding somewhat annoyed.
“You see a report on an online newspaper and you see a copy of the letter, you see a copy of the letter, does it appear as somebody who doesn’t want it to be known far and wide,” Gonsalves said.
iWitness News has published a copy of the letter, which it sourced from social media.
Gonsalves said of Joshua: “What I would have done, I would have simply discussed this matter with my landlord and go with my business advisor, my lawyer and whatever it is and say, ‘Well, I’d like us to have a formal meeting on this thing.
“Maybe Ann — my dear first cousin is in her 60s or thereabout, maybe she can’t take on the hassle of running a hotel. I don’t know. I happen to know she is a good human being and I have nothing, absolutely nothing than love for her.
“And I tell you that. The interesting thing is this, some of those who are egging her on for her own political purposes is, she needs a glass of water and she is on the road, they might pass her — and I use a glass of water metaphorically — when I wouldn’t,” said Gonsalves who had noted earlier that Joshua does not support him politically.
Gonsalves said that Joshua is being evicted so that a tenant can be selected via an open and transparent bidding process.
But Leader of the Opposition Arnhim Eustace, speaking on his weekly radio programme on Monday, accused Gonsalves of hypocrisy and described the eviction as “one of the nastiest acts ever committed by a government against its own people; a vicious, and as some people like to say, bad-minded, act”.
iWitness News understands that in the lead up to the eviction notice, a National Properties official told Joshua that she had treated the Gonsalves-led Unity Labour Party administration “with contempt”.