NDP VIEW: We won’t let the people down!

(Excerpts of Dr. Friday’s Budget presentation) Government Hotel At Mt. Wynne

Mr. Speaker, the Minister says that the government is borrowing US$50 million to build a 250 room resort at Mt. Wynne, “which will be managed by an internationally-recognised brand.” It   Will be the largest hotel in the country that will be “unique and standard-setting”. 

For years now, they have promised that a hotel was coming at Peter’s Hope.  I recall, for example, that in the 2007 Budget debate, former Minister of Tourism, Glen Beache, said with unwavering conviction so familiar on that side of the House that for sure a hotel was coming the following year, 2008. Well, it didn’t.  But now they know that elections are around the corner, and they have decided to show that something is happening in tourism.  They want also to show that there is something coming to support the Argyle International Airport (AIA), which cost us over $1billion.

A couple Budgets ago, in this Honourable House, the PM lamented the fact that the government was not able to interest the private sector to participate in a public/private partnership to build a hotel on mainland. That’s why the govt is going it alone.

Having listened to the Finance Minister’s Budget statement, where our economy was said to be so well-managed as to be compared only to Trinidad and Tobago’s economy, as the only two countries to have avoided IMF prescriptions, and SVG has been a regional leader in attracting foreign direct investment and given the impact of AIA in attracting visitors, as he sees it, you would have thought that private investors would be jumping to get into the hotel business in SVG. But that is not the case!  The government can’t get investor to build the hotel, so it is doing it itself.   And another $130 million will be added to the public debt, which already stands at $1.61billion!

The idea of a hotel project at Peter’s Hope did not start with the ULP.  It was the brainchild of Sir James Mitchell and the NDP. The NDP government bought the land from the Casson family, thinking that it might be a good place to locate a major hotel on the mainland.  In fact, Sir James had the foresight to relocate the leeward highway further in land from the coast so the new highway would not run through the land that could be developed as the resort.

However, Sir James and the NDP never intended the project to be a government owned and built project.  They knew that that would sink the government deeper into debt, and they were not prepared to risk scarce public funds in that way.  The idea they had was to invite private investors, local or foreign to develop the property.  Ideally, they hoped that a major international brand would come in and build the hotel and operate it, using their own resources.

However, this ULP government has decided to borrow and build.  They said they have an internationally-recognised brand who has agreed to operate the hotel once it is built and that the entity is now providing input on how to design and implement the resort. But we still don’t know who it is! What we do know, from experience, is how risky hotel projects can be. Example, the Buccament Bay Resorts.

Recently, in Trinidad and Tobago the risk was made clear when Sandals suddenly pulled out of a large hotel project the government had planned for Tobago. That project was planned on a similar principle to the one here.  The government signed an MOU with Sandals.  The government was providing the land and building the hotel at its own cost. The cost of building the hotel was approximately US$300 million.

The Trinidad and Tobago government was in negotiations with Sandals about the design and quality features of the project, among other things. Then, Sandals suddenly pulled out, citing too much negative publicity that was tarnishing its corporate image. So, it is important that we in Parliament and the people generally know who the business partner of the government is, i.e. the company that will run the hotel.

It is time that we know who we are dealing with.  I thought the Minister was going to break the silence and give us the good news as to who it is.  But Nothing! The loan Bill to raise US$50million came to Parliament late last year. There was a lot of debate on it in this Honourable House.

We in the Opposition raised serious concerns in the debate of the Bill.  In the end, we supported it after hearing more about the project from the government during the debate.  But we made it clear that we had reservations about the project, and we still do. So, our support for the Bill and the project was not unconditional.  We essentially took a chance when we supported the loan Bill late last year.  Some people, fully aware of the government’s bad spending habits and poor record of accountability, were not so generous and felt the project should not be supported.

But we supported it, because we want to see hotel development on the mainland, if possible. We supported a hotel project in principle, though we preferred to see it as a wholly private sector development.  However, the Minister can’t expect us to go further into the project without knowing more, and he can’t expect us to rely on the government forever when they say, in effect: “Trust us.  We know what we are doing”.

Dr. Gonsalves already said, more than once, in this House that he did not trust Mr. Eustace when he was opposition leader and does not trust me either!  Of course, he has nothing to base that distrust on; but as usual he plays to his crowd. But now, he wants us to trust him unconditionally.  We can’t trust in the way they want us to. In order to trust, we must be able to verify, and we can’t that without basic information.

The people of this country expect us, the Opposition, to ask searching questions and to hold the government accountable.  And we won’t let the people down!