November 26, 2020

Doubts raised on Chinese contracts

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Artist impression of the berthing facility

Construction industry leaders and community figures are deeply skeptical of Chinese contracts for the George Town cruise-ship port, fearing foreign ownership and crippling economic damage.

“What are we going to sacrifice for cheap money?” asked an audience member at a Thursday review of a Chamber of Commerce 9-10 November tour of Jamaica’s US$400 million China Habour Engineering Company (CHEC) infrastructure projects.

The Jamaica projects are funded through China’s Export-Import Bank at rates that, in the past, have been as low as 2%. For Cayman, terms of the $300 million financing will put port operations – including retail space and a share of government’s passenger-landing revenues — in Chinese hands for 50 years.

“This affects my grandchildren and I’m not happy about it,” said Bo Miller, former independent political candidate and longtime community activist. “It’s a disgrace that we have been brought to this point. We have mismanaged and wasted our resources to the point where we are now hostages to this company.”

Speaking privately afterwards, he told iNews Cayman “We could raise $200 million in this community and build it ourselves. We need to structure a public company and look for investors here, bringing ownership locally. Why don’t we? If we go ahead with this company, Cayman is in deep trouble.”

Steve Hawley, of Phoenix Construction Company and formerly secretary of the Cayman Contractor’s Association, feared losing control of the project: “The Chinese bring their own people, their own housing, food, money, equipment, everything for themselves.

“The fear is they will come in, take the money and go out again, and it never circulates here,” he said. “This is a national issue for the economy, the community and our standard of living.“

Appointed only this week to head government’s task force on port development, UDP George Town MLA Ellio Solomon, called to the dais by Chamber President David Kirkaldy, said government could not pay for the project, but would demand that employment, services and construction materials be locally sourced.

“I share these concerns 100%,” he told the 50-strong group, acknowledging that $75 million left Cayman annually. “It’s all about bringing the money back home. I am going to get this done and I am going to work the framework agreement to maximise the spend in the local economy.

“I will come to this group of experts and professionals,” he vowed, “to get advice and make sure we do the right things and make the right decisions. We need to maximise the opportunities for local companies.”

Referring to a CHEC graphic of the port development, architect and founder of the Cayman Architects and Engineers Society Burns Conolly pointed out that the four berthed ships were not the giant Genesis-class vessels that were spurring the new piers, throwing the rendering into question.

Similarly, Royal Construction managing director Howard Finlason, local partner of former port contractor GLF, said only two Genesis ships were in operation, warning that the size and cost of building the giant vessels was forcing a re-think among cruise lines.

Meanwhile, Captain Bryan Ebanks, head of the “Save Cayman“ group and advocate for alternative berthing proposals in Red Bay, forecast serious environmental and economic problems with a George Town port, and called for greater awareness among politicians and business owners.

Appearing on Radio Cayman on Monday, he said businesses needed to defend their interests and politicians to educate themselves about the George Town port, which will destroy marine life, encourage flooding and threaten downtown commerce.

“The politicians are ignorant and the business owners say they don’t want to get involved in the politics. Someone has to speak up about the best interests of this country. Who is going to do it?”

 

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