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Argyle international

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This country went into some kind of frenzy last week with the arrival of thirteen pieces of equipment and a carnival type parade through Kingstown in the middle of the day as the equipment were being transported to Argyle. According to the Vincentian, the moment the government and people of the country had been waiting for had finally arrived. What we saw really was a political statement delivered to those who doubted that the project was going anywhere. Really there could be no other reason for transporting the equipment through Kingstown in the middle of the day, during the week at that, and at a time when there were already traffic problems caused by the reconstruction of the Windward highway.{{more}} As someone said it was some kind of lunacy. The construction of an international airport in a small developing country that is severely challenged, where its topography is concerned is a major undertaking and the airport would be the largest single project ever to be carried out in this country. It is being carried out at a time of rising costs fuelled by high oil prices. It is also being carried out at a time when our economy is facing severe problems, following the decline of what was once the major prop of the economy, the banana industry. It goes without saying that this is going to demand tremendous sacrifices not only in completing the project but also in ensuring its sustainability and proper functioning. Projects of this magnitude demand, among other things, a marshalling of all human resources for a common objective. The technical task is also a formidable one. The News quoted Cuban Consultant Engineer Leonardo Perez as saying that “…it will be a very hard task to build the airport and revealed that in the first kilometre, over three million, seven hundred and twenty nine thousand cubic metres of cut material has to be excavated, along with a hill that is approximately 18 metres high. One million six hundred and ninety six thousand cubic metres of fill also has to be moved.”

Unfortunately, like so many other things, it has fallen victim to the political divide in the country. We seem so often to be functioning at cross purposes, instead of being focused on a commonly agreed on objective. Now is not the time to say where and how it all started. What is important is that it is there and would seriously handicap any thrust forward. An airport of the kind contemplated is going to demand a lot from all of us. Its completion would not be the end of the story for with rising fuel costs and with some airlines rationalising their air routes and moving out of routes not economically viable the climate is now extremely bad. One of the problems which we always had to face based on our late entry into the international airline business is competing for the services of existing airlines, given the fact that there are other international airports nearby. This is going to be a major challenge and would demand all our ingenuity and creativity. We would have to ensure that we put a lot in place to attract visitors and consequently airlines. Some persons have spoken about the lack of hotel rooms but this is not a major problem since it would be one of those chicken-eggs situations. Investors would invest in hotels if they see the possibility of getting visitors here. But it is not only the presence of an international airport that would get people here there would have to be other things that would attract visitors. In this area a lot of work needs to be done.

There have of course been a number of persons who remain sceptical about the project. This is to be expected because of the sacrifices that are going to be demanded from the country and because there are still so many uncertainties. Although some figures have been spouted around about the cost of the project, this still appears to be a guestimate, and one expects that costs would have risen tremendously since the airport was first talked about. We have been hearing about the contributions of Cuba and Venezuela particularly in the earth works and financial inputs promised, I believe by Mexico, Austria and Taiwan. It might be the thinking of those undertaking the project that if you examined the financial demands too closely you might be perturbed by the magnitude of the financing and be dissuaded. But to proceed without this would be foolhardy. There might also be the thinking that once something is put on the ground it would be easier to attract assistance from other sources.

There are other causes for concern. Dale DaSilva, writing in the Vincentian of last week, made reference to years of environmental studies and wind tests. Obviously, Dale knows something that many of us do not. I am not aware that we have completed the amount of wind studies that need to be done and I am certainly not clear about the ‘years of environmental studies’. We have been told that the design has been completed but how can you complete a design without access to final wind studies and environmental studies details? Clearly, the design should be informed by these. So there are areas that we need to talk about. Criticisms about projects of this magnitude should not be interpreted as an outright rejection of the project. In fact, if more questions had been asked about the Ottley Hall project, we would not have been in the kind of predicament we are in.

Once the airport is completed, this is not the end of the story and we cannot be expected to live happily ever afterwards. Other concerns have to do with its operation, maintenance and sustainability. It might be argued that not many airports, if any, in the region are financially viable, so clearly ours would not be but it has to be maintained. What are we going to be sacrificing in order to ensure its maintenance and operation? But there is another part of this argument. What is likely to be the economic impact? If it gives impetus to the development of different sectors of the economy, then this should be taken into account. Would it give a boost to our tourism, culture and agriculture, among others? We also need to look carefully at the operations and impact of the existence of international airports in our neighbouring countries. What are the daily or weekly flights to these airports and by which carriers? Grenada’s airport was a gift. Others were developed from strips constructed during the war periods to facilitate the Americans. Would ours be a gift? Would it be done mainly by grants from friendly governments/countries? What loans are going to be involved, if any and on what terms? I believe that deep within the hearts of most of us we would like to see an airport, call it what you would, jetport or international, but many are worried about a lot of things. Of even deeper concern is the fact that the airport has become a political football. We have now gone beyond talk of extending Arnos Vale or of even other alternative sites. Many questions remain, however. Moreover there is no common purpose. The political divisions and political masquerading as seen last week will continue. One expects that over the next few years and months there will be a major focus of attention on what is happening or what is expected to happen at Argyle. All of our resources are going to be put into it. What would be sacrificed is left to be seen.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a historian and social commentator.

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