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SVG's Parliament in session. (iWN file photo)
SVG’s Parliament in session. (iWN file photo)

Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday on Tuesday said he agrees with Prime Minster Ralph Gonsalves that all Vincentians must join together to make the Argyle International Airport a success.

He, however, demanded that taxpayers — who are being asked to dig deeper into their pockets this year — be given an account of how monies spent on the project were used.

Gonsalves told Parliament on Monday that the airport has left the country with an EC$400 million debt, which he said can be covered by assets owned by state companies.

Friday on Tuesday called for a full report on the spending.

“We, therefore, call for a full and comprehensive report on the status of the construction, financing, certification and prospective sustainable operation of the Argyle International Airport, including, but not limited to, audited financial statements from 2008 to the present. I don’t think that is too much to ask, Mr. Speaker,” Friday said.

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He told lawmakers that he agrees that the EC$700 million project is “too big a deal” not to succeed.

The airport will open next week Tuesday, Feb. 14, nine years after construction began and six years behind schedule.

Friday said the completion of the project — though long-delayed — was inevitable.

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Argyle International Airport. (Photo: Lance Neverson/Facebook)

“So, Mr. Speaker, the people expect it to open, but the question is, what follows? And I agree with the Prime Minister when he said in the Budget Address that we must all try to make it work.

“Mr. Speaker, this is a very big deal for the country; failure in not an option,” Friday said and asked what are the plans for the sustainability of the operations of the airport.

The airport will open with regular flight by regional carrier LIAT and a number of chartered flights from North America, but no immediate schedule for chartered or regular international flights come Feb. 15.

The opposition leader noted that over the past three years there have been announcements by the government and the head of the Tourism Authority, Glen Beache, that they were negotiating with various airlines from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

“But we haven’t seen anything,” Friday said.

Friday said he is serious about making the airport work, regardless of which government is in office, but said it is not going to be easy “given the way in which it was done and the problems that are still there”.

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“What if, Mr. Speaker, we find that the dance can’t pay for the light? This expression has been used with the airport in Bequia and we have now to make sure that the Argyle International Airport doesn’t fall in that position. The situation, Mr. Speaker, as it stands now, doesn’t look very promising.”

The Bequia airport was built under the New Democratic Party administration and some observers say that it should never have been built because of limited demand for airlift from the island, which is just nine nautical miles away from Kingstown.

Friday said that Gonsalves told Parliament on Monday that Argyle International Airport has contributed EC$400 million to the public debt.

The opposition leader said the Parliament is yet to see properly audited statements about how monies used at the airport were spent.

He said that the opposition has never “dismissed, or, let us use the term that the young people would use, we have never dissed the Argyle International Airport”.

The statement was greeted with jeers from the government benches.

“Mr. Speaker, we have never dismissed the idea of building an international airport in St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” Friday said, adding that the NDP knows the dreams of all Vincentians and the frustrations of coming from abroad.

“What we are demanding, however, on behalf of the people, is that if the project is going to be done, that it be done right, both from the technical and financial perspective.”

Friday said the NDP has been very early and very consistently a supporter of building an international airport in St. Vincent.

To illustrate, Friday referred to the 1999 Budget Speech “just to show you how long and how consistent the New Democratic Party has supported the idea of an international airport”.

In the speech, then Minister of Finance Arnhim Eustace said that, as in indicated in the 1998 Budget Address, the NDP administration had commissioned a study on airport development in St. Vincent.

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Leader of the Opposition Dr. Godwin Friday debates the Budget on Tuesday. (iWN photo)

The study was required to establish the demand and estimate future demand for airlift in the country.

“In essence, we were interested in finding out the requirements for the establishment of air facilities to accommodate small to medium size jet aircraft,” Friday said.

Continuing to quote the speech, Friday said that the consultants were also required to prepare preliminary designs and cost estimates including the cost of mitigating adverse environment impacts and phasing of expenditure of the optimum solution determined.

The study pointed to two main options: the development of the existing site at E.T. Joshua or a new site at Argyle.

“So, you see, it started with the NDP,” Friday said, adding, “It is the same study by MM&M that was used by the government to go ahead with the Argyle International Airport.”

Friday said that anyone who doubts that opposition lawmakers had supported the project, “even with all its difficulties, should simply recall that on several occasions we voted in Parliament to approve borrowings to construct the airport”.

He said that most Vincentians “absolutely support the idea” of having an international airport.

The opposition leader, however, said many persons “are dismayed by the politicisation, the division, the lies, the gross mismanagement, the complete lack of transparency, and the lack of accountability that has accompanied the project”.

He said that in 2005 when Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves announced his plan to build an airport, he went to great lengths to characterise the airport as a political project, saying that only the Unity Labour Party administration could do it.

Friday said that when the first set of heavy equipment came for the earthworks, they were paraded “in red” from Campden Park to Argyle.

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Prime Minister Dr. Ralph Gonsalves as Friday debated the Budget. (iWN Photo)

Gonsalves, interjecting from across the floor, claiming that this was not true and that red was put on them to indicate danger.

Friday, further, said that when people complained about the red flags, it was said, “Who ye hut, ye hut”.

He added that on Dec. 6, 2016, a chartered LIAT fight was landed at the unfinished airport and was greeted by “a sea of red”.

“What was that? Was that for technical reasons or for political reasons? Do you think that is the NDP has said we wanted to have a rally at the airport and dressed in yellow we would have been permitted to do so?”

Friday said he still can’t understand why it was necessary for a LIAT flight to land at the airport on Dec. 6, 2015 and then no flights have landed there for an entire year after.

“Clearly, that’s why it was a political stunt intended to improve the ULP’s chances of winning the general elections which took place a mere three days later…

“Mr Speaker, Argyle International Airport is an extremely costly project and it has been implemented with zero transparency and accountability.”

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A number of Community College students listened to the Debate at the assembly chambers on Tuesday. (iWN photo)

Friday said that the original cost of the airport was announced to be EC$481 million, a figure that was revised to EC$729 million in 2015.

The opposition leader noted Gonsalves said on Monday that the cost of the airport was EC$700 million, and that with in-kind contribution the value was over EC$1 billion.

Friday pointed out that the NDP had done a study which said that the airport would cost EC$1.1 billion, even as the government was saying EC$500 million.

“It seems that we are right on track, Mr. Speaker, as we have been with so many things in the past.

“So we have a project that, according to the government should have taken three years, at a cost of $481 million, but instead it is going on eight years and over $1 billion in cost and a large part of that cost, Mr. Speaker is long-term debt.

“Mr. Speaker, the government’s mismanagement of this project from start to finish means that taxes and hardships for Vincentians will continue. And then, to add insult to injury, when we asked in this house for audited statements, of financial accounts of the IADC, … none was forthcoming.”

Friday said this shows “contempt for the very idea of transparency in government”.

He noted that even as the airport will open on Tuesday, the charter flights on that day will cost the country more than half a million dollars, according to the Tourism Authority.

“Mr. Speaker, our position on the airport in summary, is thus: that we support the intention to build an international airport at Argyle, but we do not support and we deplore the extreme politicisation that is taking place, the reckless behaviour in the administration, planning, financing and execution of the project. We deplore the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars of funds without proper accountability. And that is yet to come. We must have that. Because if we are asking people to pay addition taxes to finance the on-going work,– we are told that it will cost $20 million to operate the airport, which is $13 million more than it costs to operate E.T. Joshua Airport. That money has to come from somewhere. So, if the taxpayers have to put money into it, Mr. Speaker, they deserve proper accounting of the finances,” Friday said.

8 replies on “Friday says SVG must join together to make Argyle Airport succeed”

  1. For the sake of full disclosure, I am not a Vincentian citizen – as I have, I believe, always made clear in posts here. However, I have been a regular visitor for long stays for more than a quarter-century, I’ve come back again and again because I have a deep love for your country, tremendous admiration for the graciousness, resourcefulness, and determination of the Vincy people, and delight in the lush and rugged natural beauty of your country. (I’ve even climbed to the top of Soufriere, my friends!)

    I am however, at a loss as to how the pleaded-for “coming together” of the Vincentian people will impact the success, or lack of same, of AIA. That success will depend solely on the ability of the airport to become cost-effective by a healthy ratio of income and expenses, just like any other “major project.” How can Vincentians dig much deeper into their pockets, so many of which are already close to empty? I’ve known Vincy friends who’ve joined with their neighbors to repair their own roads, because no one else would; individuals who’ve started their own businesses, with their own resources and boundless energies; friends who’ve supported their aging parents because no other resources were available; and those who joined together to pay for medical care for a dying relative, because they had no other choice.

    But no population, no matter how enthusiastic, or how “united,” can be expected to put together the kind of infrastructure that will draw tourists from around the world. Vincentians know what those “amenities” are, and what the country lacks in those areas.

    The still-unanswered question, from my POV, is what happens to travelers AFTER they land at AIA? What services are offered them? Where will they stay on St. Vincent, if that is their final destination? What lovely resorts/guest houses/hotels await them? (I could certainly name several, and have stayed in most of them.) Will convenient public transportation be available throughout the island? Will they be able to continue on easily, comfortably, and pleasantly to any one of the exquisite Grenadines? If they become ill, or are unfortunately involved in an accident, what medical services will be available? The list goes on… And none of these things can be provided by a populace working without support, no matter how great their desire and intention to make it all happen.

    If Argyle is truly to succeed, it will not be simply because it finally “exists.” It will because it becomes known as the gateway to a unique country full of natural beauty, enjoying a thriving economy, and populated by a gracious and hospitable people who welcome visitors to share their bounty and joy.

    This is my fervent hope for all of you.

  2. I opined before reading this editorial that Friday should walk away, but I believe he should stay and demand the documents he’s requesting from the government. Vincentians still don’t know the cost of the airport because Ralph has been delinquent with the truth and paper work. How can he now ask Vincentians to support his efforts to build AIA when he blatantly left them out completely? This is his bed and he made it, so let him lie in it.

  3. Excellent comments though it is my understanding that the NDP first gave support (though qualified) to AIA on the eve of the 2005 election. If I am mistaken, would someone please supply better evidence than the Friday’s reference to 1999.

    Friday says “failure is not an option,” an example of illogical wishful thinking if there ever was one. Whenever a government initiates a costly project only meant to gain public support at the polling booth, economic failure is very high on the list of probable outcomes.

    I’m sure that the last words the hubristic Captain of the Titanic uttered were, “The sinking of this ship is not an option.”

    And isn’t Sir James Mitchell still crowing that the airport he named after himself is a tremendous success. Good for Friday for setting the record straight on the white elephant in Bequia.

    For me, the success of AIA is not an option — it will suffer the same fate as Mitchell’s boondoggle — for all the reasons I have given in 44 essays.

    But this is not because I ever wanted the project to fail and, as God is my witness, I hope I am wrong.

    Even though I wouldn’t suffer much personal economic loss, it would be nice to fly here non-stop from my overseas home.

    Much more important, however, is that like all patriotic Vincentians I would love to see it succeed because, in the absence of other developmental prospects, this would help improve our economic well being.

    1. I should have written “on the eve of the 2015 election” rather than “on the eve of the 2005 election” in the first sentence.

  4. Dave from Toronto says:

    All we need now is for C.B-David and his gang from the peanut gallery to get on board and support the airport. Actually, it’s a one-man gang who writes articles and then comments on his own articles using various aliases. Such as loser!!!

    1. There you go again blaming the bearer of sad tidings for creating those sad tidings.

      If the airport fails, it would be because of people like me bad mouthing it, right?

      Sounds like I gave the airport “maljoe” (evil eye), a topic I will explore in a subsequent essay, citing your writings as a good example of our “blame the victim” airport syndrome.

      Dave not-from Toronto, we will soon all be losers when this airport fails — not because I or most other patriotic Vincentians want it to fail — but because it is bound to fail since it was neither needed nor can it be afforded.

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