The Opposition United Workers Party appeared to be making a desperate plea to the Saint Lucia government on Tuesday morning as former Minister for Tourism and former Minister for Communications and Works Guy Joseph met with the media to speak about the Hewanorra Airport Redevelopment Project and the status of airlift to the island. “We will support anything the government can do to fix this situation. This is not a political issue,” said Chastanet on the figures regarding arrivals and decreasing airlift. Before tackling the airlift issue the two ministers spoke of the status of the Hewanorra Airport Redevelopment Project. Recently there has been increased news on the issue as the current St Lucia Labour Party government through the Saint Lucia Air and Seaports Authority has begun seeking proposals for the design of the airport. In their 2011 manifesto the Labour Party made it clear that they were interested in the “improvement of our existing international airport” and that they did “not support a project that will have a crippling effect on our debt servicing obligations . . .”
The SLP had said that upon coming into office they would “analyze plans and proposals on which financing arrangements were based; review any financing arrangements entered into by the UWP government; carry out extensive due diligence checks on all entities involved in this project” and “assign a competent experienced team to develop a comprehensive plan for the modernization of our airport services, which will look at the operations of both airports and the support services.” Basically as the Labour Party took office, St Lucia headed back to the drawing board on the project. Never mind all that had already been spent on pursuing the last set of proposals. With the new advertisements by SLASPA calling for design concepts for the Hewanorra Airport many are now wondering, what is the SLP’s plan? Is our current government going to redesign the current structure? Or build an entirely new structure as the UWP government had intended? Both Allen Chastanet and Guy Joseph called on the Labour Party government to “do the right thing.”
Chastanet began his statement by running through the reasons why the former government had decided along with the Saint Lucia Air and Seaports Authority that the airport needed to be completely reconstructed. He listed a number of problems with the current structure among them that the building was too close to the tarmac and it was unable to accommodate increased airlift. There are also security and safety issues with arrivals having to pass in front of the baggage terminals. “We felt, based on the technical input of SLASPA, that spending more money on fixing up the Hewanorra International Airport was ultimately going to be a waste of money,” said Chastanet. Other issues the former government considered when deciding to go the direction of building a new airport, said Chastanet, was the need for jetways, more than two baggage belts, and to lessen the congestion of taxis. The former minister claims that the then government was also thinking ahead to St Lucia being a southern hub and a cargo hub for the region. “Investing more money into the existing building was not the way to go. Any money you would put into that building will be lost money,” Chastanet said.
For his part, Guy Joseph, former minister for Communications and Works dealt with the actual process of selecting the Consortium that would have built Saint Lucia’s new airport. He ran through another aspect of how SLASPA and the UWP government arrived at the design for the airport. Said Joseph: “American airlines gave us some great assistance in sending their technical people to St Lucia to come up with an initial conceptual design of what the airport should be like. After this initial design we went up Miami with SLASPA and airport representatives and the CEO of American Airlines went through every detail of what the conceptual design was, in terms of meeting the needs of St Lucia in as far as the terminal is concerned. “I must say this: As a government we gave SLASPA the latitude to be the one to do all of the negotiations, even if government had to intervene and give a guarantee or had to approve of the project. SLASPA had a board and the board was responsible for taking the entire process forward. The process was one which is similar to what is being proposed now. There was a request for proposals (RFP) which SLASPA put out as an advertisement saying they were looking for design, finance, construct project of an airport terminal with an initial conceptual design in mind as to what the needs of the airport would be.”
Joseph explained that once the ad went out about eight companies indicated their interest and it was narrowed down to four companies and “the best consortium was chosen.” “In SLASPA’s reports you will see what they agreed to and what they did not agree to and the level of engagement there was with the consortium,” Joseph added saying that government had several stipulations when awarding the contract among them that the then government would not give the companies a guarantee and they would not accept an interest rate that was above six percent. The then government, Joseph said, also stated that they would not allow “any assets of the airport to be signed over to the company until the loan was paid.” Joseph said that with St Lucia’s credit rating it made it challenging for the investor to “come up with the necessary financing.” He said however the consortium managed to secure financing from two sources. “But despite all of this they were engaged and SLASPA was satisfied that the project was moving according to plan,” said Joseph. “To call into question the process and the transparency of this project is to call into question the integrity of the persons who served on the board of SLASPA,” said Joseph. “As ministers of government then we were not involved in the negotiations. We were not involved in the nitty-gritty of the project. It was only when Cabinet was required to make a decision . . .”
The former minister said the aim of Tuesday’s press conference was to make sure St Lucians understand the situation and not to criticize the new government for not agreeing with them. “We want everyone to understand we were transparent and we were very clear. If it was a project that was driven entirely by our government based on political reasons the airport would have started a long time ago,” said Joseph. “We were not instructing SLASPA. We were working with SLASPA to see to it that we got the best possible design and the best possible returns on the airport.” Joseph said that there have been rumblings that the Hewanorra International Airport will now be redesigned for $170 million. “I would love to know how this came about?” said Joseph. “We are hoping that the government will not go about trying to repair the existing building. Because imagine if you spend $170 million on a building that is already too close to the runway. We have to think of the future.” (Look for full story in Saturday’s STAR)