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Sir James and his folly

Sir James and his folly

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Editor: I watched with interest Sir James Mitchell’s presentation on the Inside Out TV programme last Sunday evening. During and after the programme, I kept asking myself, what was the purpose of his presentation? I am still trying to answer that question, and I still have no clear answer in my mind.

From what he said, it seems to me that he was trying to confuse Vincentians on the international airport issue. But when I thought about that, I quickly put it out of my mind, as I know that Sir James is an honourable man. He would not want to mislead Vincentians again.

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As I recognised many points of his presentation that were at variance with the facts, I thought that I might write this note to help the senior citizen clarify some of the things that he had to say about the international airport.

In his presentation, Sir James quite rightly explained, using the two most recent reports commissioned by his administration, that the Kitchen site was far too expensive for us to consider for the international airport. Prime Minister, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves in his presentation on the issue also pointed to the environmental issues and land use considerations associated with the Kitchen site. On these points, Sir James has, as does the present government, correctly relied upon the advice of the paid consultants.

Even so the government’s decision to follow the consultant’s advice to locate the international airport at Argyle did not receive Sir James’s support. Sir James cited the crosswind factor and the possible need for two airstrips as one of his main objections to Argyle.

Crosswind runaway

It is now well known that there is a crosswind at Argyle that might gust at 17 knots and affect the operation of small aeroplanes. For this reason, the consultants recommended, and the government accepted their recommendation, to plan for a short runway, called a “crosswind runway” for these small turboprop planes, which might possibly be affected by the crosswinds. Wind studies will have to be done for several reasons, among which is to determine whether the crosswinds at Argyle exceed 17 knots and whether there is a need for a “crosswind runway”.

Sir James clearly misunderstood the need for and the use of the crosswind runway. In his presentation at the NDP convention last year, he noted that we would have to build two runways at Argyle: one for landing and the other for takeoff. I thought that during his television presentation he would have taken the opportunity to correct this earlier mistake. But instead, he compounded it by showing pictures of the design of the airstrips. As he correctly showed, the main airstrip would be about 9,000 feet long and the “crosswind airstrip”, if constructed, would be about 2,200 feet. Does Sir James really think that a jet that requires a 9,000 foot airstrip for landing would be able to take off on a 2,200 foot airstrip?

Sir James missed an opportunity to publicly amend his blunder about “one airstrip for landing, and one for takeoff”. Given the information in the public domain, Vincentians must now be looking at Sir James with scepticism. Some people must be asking themselves, is this the man who led us for many years? When Sir James misunderstands simple issues like the need for a short runway for small aircraft, Vincentians could now more easily understand why we were defrauded to the tune of EC$200 million at Ottley Hall. There obviously was no knowledgeable person negotiating on our behalf.

I was also taken aback by Sir James’ evasion of the truth about the airport issue and his efforts to avoid the recommendations by the consultants paid by his government. Sir James came on national television to tell us that a construction firm, which had an interest in building the airport, wrote to the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Finance and Planning advising them to build a jetport at Arnos Vale rather than an international airport at Argyle. And it is this advice that Sir James seems willing to rely upon.

Lacking wisdom

If it were not a serious issue, I would have held my belly and rolled with laughter. Simply put, the firm which the James Mitchell administration paid to advise them on airport development on mainland advised that an international airport at Argyle was the best option, but Sir James came on national television to tell us that he preferred to take the advice of a construction firm, whose interest is in finding work. I wonder whether Sir James really thinks the construction firm would have cared whether or not the airport at Arnos Vale worked for us after they had constructed it.

One would have thought that after the Dr. Rolla and Ottley Hall fiasco, Sir James would have avoided taking advice from people who have an interest in or who would benefit directly from the advice they give. But it seems that as Sir James gets older, he does not necessarily get any wiser! So Ottley Hall was bound to happen under Sir James. He clearly is lacking wisdom in deciding from whom to take advice.

Interestingly, Sir James was very reluctant to talk about the monumental failure at Ottley Hall, over which his government presided. Indeed, when asked about Ottley Hall, his response was so short and abrupt that his friendly interviewer did not even know that he had finished his response and was visibly rushed into putting forward another question.

Sir James also warned us, that from his considerable and extensive experience with compacting soil, the kind of soil at Argyle is going to be difficult to compact and that we should expect to experience some trouble in compacting the soil when we begin the earth works. I did not know that Sir James had gone out and personally tested the soil at Argyle. From what the Prime Minister said, the Cubans and Venezuelans would be doing the earth and site works component of the airport. We all know that the Cubans have extensive experience in building airports. I believe that they must surely know about compacting soil. But still, it is useful to know that we have a resident expert on compacting soil, in Sir James Mitchell. Perhaps he could be made useful after all.

Sir James should have learnt from his failure at Ottley Hall. He should have learnt that one ought to listen to people when they advise on areas in which they have proven expertise. Surely, after the Ottley Hall debacle, in which Sir James apparently ignored the advice of everyone but Dr Rolla, he should have learnt that his self reliant modus operandi can ruin a small country. The present government has announced plans for an international airport based on the research and advice provided by experts paid by previous governments over the last thirty years. The advice is that an international airport at Argyle is the only economically viable option. They warned against a jetport at Arnos Vale because of restrictions, which would have to remain in place at Arnos Vale.

Marshall Macklin Monaghan International Inc.’s, in their Phase I Final Report (1998) on Airport Development on St Vincent said:

“On a financial and economic basis, airport expansion is not justified other than an investment in operational improvements at E. T. Joshua Airport. However, should it be decided to expand facilities to allow direct jet access from the southern United States……the high cost of runway expansion at E. T. Joshua indicates that a new facility at Argyle is a better alternative.”

Should we, as prudent people, ignore the experts’ advice and spend an estimated EC$200 million on a jetport at Arnos Vale, knowing full well that the Arnos Vale jetport would still be an uneconomical destination for larger capacity aircrafts; knowing that the Arnos Vale jetport would still be unattractive to jets, now and in the future; knowing that our desire for direct air connection to North and Central America and Europe would still be unrealised?

Should we ignore the experts and follow the advice of Sir James, a senior citizen who has no known expertise on airport matters and whose best days are obviously long behind him? Should we allow Sir James to talk us into another fiasco at Arnos Vale, as he did at Ottley Hall, leaving us and our children with white elephants for which we must pay dearly, but from which we get little or no benefits?

This country has been good to Sir James. We have elevated him to the top job here and to a position of trust, which many of us now believe he breached substantially. For my own part, I think Sir James should confine himself in his luxurious home in Bequia, take regular swimming exercises in his pool and enjoy his twilight years. We are today far wiser than we were when Sir James ruled over us. We would not allow him to mislead us again.

An Informed Vincentian

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