Asurprisingly personable and charming Teo Ah Khing presented to the local media on Wednesday this week the latest developments in the proposed Pearl of the Caribbean project. On the occasion he wore two hats: that of professional architect and planner, and as chairman of Desert Star Holdings. With Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister, Mr. Allen Chastanet, he commandeered the spur-of-the-moment meeting at the office of the prime minister before a full house of media attendees. The meeting was behind schedule by some 30 minutes, but once it got underway the prime minister more than made up for the delay answering in detail all questions from the media.
He revisited the controversial DSH venture as it had been when first announced, when it still included the Makote mangrove. “That’s how it was initially designed,” he said. “You had the horse-racing track and the hotel development /resort development that was supposed to be taking place within the mangrove, with the idea of enhancing it.” He said Makote had been dying, “and we wanted to be able to incorporate the development and prove you can have development and at the same time be ecologically sensitive.”
The prime minister noted that a nearby garbage dump had “been seeping for many years into the mangrove,” which proved a major problem.
“The responsibility of closing the mangrove, as well as relocating the dump, fell upon the State,” Chastanet said. “At a meeting with DSH, we indicated to them that we did not have the technical capacity to do that, and we would have to pass on that responsibility to them.”
The end result was uncertainty, and the realization that timelines could be adversely affected even with the possibility of DSH taking on the concerns. Alternative sites were sought over a wide area including Laborie and Choiseul.
Invest Saint Lucia, under both the Labour Party and his own government, had identified the location at Il Pirata as a development site, also at Pointe Sables. Moreover, the previous government had actually relocated people at one point, thinking the project was about to get underway. The displaced had since moved back.
Plans for the Il Pirata site included a casino, a marina, and a cruise ship berth, along with a hotel, and some residential areas. The assessment stages had included reference to historical graphs, which was necessary to find out where the water naturally went previously. Much work had to been done, the prime minister revealed, to retrain the surface water coming down from the hills.
The second part involved an area to the front of Pointe Sables, which had been identified for construction of apartment buildings, and some small hotels. “A national park was maintained, and we indicated there were going to be no hotels on the beach, so the sandy beach area remained a public stretch,” Chastanet said. It was discovered that the water in Pointe Sables Bay was shallower than expected. Initial studies revealed it was about 5m deep.
A new proposal was presented to Cabinet that included a causeway in the bay. Said Chastanet: “Cabinet appreciated and accepted the fact that this was not clearly the final draft, but agreed to the concept of being able to reclaim land in that bay, given the basic information provided.”
Additionally: “The reason we came out with the original plan: I did not want, while we were still doing the study, to have that design make its way into the public and create the impression we were in any way seeking to hide anything . . . it was better for us to come out and say, ‘This is a preliminary proposal,’ that the intention is for us not to touch Maria Islands . . . and that what we’re hoping was that in the next couple of weeks we would have had a better design that would have incorporated a lot of the ecological issues people naturally brought up, also some we were ourselves concerned about.”
Chastanet emphasized that despite all the talk the only part of the DSH project that has been approved by the government is the horse-racing track. It is also the only part of the project for which drawings and an application have been submitted to the DCA.
“There’s been no other applications to the DCA,” he underscored. “Until we reach a concept that we both sign off on, and I’m hoping we’ve gotten to that point now, and now the developers work out the details with the DCA to make sure it’s in keeping with the standards of Saint Lucia.”
For the umpteenth time Chastanet emphasized that the framework agreement represented a work in progress. He said the framework agreement, while to some extent binding, allowed the involved parties to work through certain things. They were making decisions on things they were not yet sure of. “As we reach those barriers, and we determine for ourselves what the truth is, then it becomes part of the final contract,” said the prime minister. “We’re hoping that very soon we will be able to sign the final contract with DSH.”
The DSH chairman made a point of highlighting some of the other projects his company had worked on, their successes, and the philosophy of Desert Star Holdings. But before he got to the heart of his presentation, Khing took a moment to recall the contributions of the late Winston Trim to the development.
“We have lost a comrade in Saint Lucia,” he said. “It was Winston, one of the guys who enthusiastically came to see me, and allowed me to have a chance to come here. I’d like to say it’s a great loss to us, but the country, the vision, the dream, must move on. We remember his contribution. I also would like to visit the family very soon.”
After that, Khing gave a a power point presentation with photos of the Palm Islands project in Dubai – in which DSH played a significant role – and the proposed development in Saint Lucia. He also made a point of detailing his company’s plans. Khing opened himself to media questions concerning technical aspects of the development, including the revised plan relating to the Maria islands. Like the prime minister before him, the DSH chairman guaranteed the islands would not be connected.
“This will not be built in one night . . .” Khing said, adding that the reclamation would be done in parts, phase by phase. He also addressed waste management and environmental protection issues: “If you destroy the environment, after five years nobody will come here. The developer will be at a great loss. After our experiences in Dubai and Asia, we know what can be done and what must not be done. Best practice will apply here to international standards.”
At one point during his presentation a surprisingly affable Khing pleaded with his critics in the media and elsewhere not to scare him away.
“As a foreigner,” he said, “I came here and I’ve been hearing things about south, north and so on. But to me this is one country. I think particularly there’s a great opportunity where the prime minister and his Cabinet are putting focus in an area that, to my professional mind, has been neglected. You have important infrastructure, what we call a district. An airport is a district, and a district needs to have surrounding facilities and amenities to support it. That’s what we’re trying to do to the best of our ability.”