The redevelopment of Owen Roberts International Airport will commence “in the first half of 2015,” according to Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell.
The expansion project, which includes more than doubling the size of the airport terminal, repaving the tarmac and runway and, in the longer term and if financially feasible, putting in an airplane taxiway parallel to the runway, was reviewed by more than 200 people at George Town’s Mary Miller Hall Monday night.
Minister Kirkconnell, who is also the Cayman Islands deputy premier, said decisions to redevelop the airport at its current location rather than build a new facility – something consultants from WSP Canada and accounting firm PwC indicated would have to be done eventually – were largely driven by the urgent need to comfortably accommodate more passengers in the often-overwhelmed Grand Cayman airport terminal.
“If we’re going to continue to build our tourism project … it makes no sense for us to get into a conflict over how we’re going to build our tourism infrastructure,” Mr. Kirkconnell said. “[We will] break ground on this airport in 2015 and put our tourism product back on par with our competitors in this region.”
Simon Conway with PwC indicated that new airport construction on Grand Cayman at today’s costs would be in the region of $113 million. The Cayman Islands is currently forbidden from engaging in long-term borrowing for public projects by the United Kingdom via legal requirements in the Framework for Fiscal Responsibility, and consultants had disregarded the use of public-private partnerships to fund airport redevelopment.
The initial phase of redevelopment at Owen Roberts is expected to cost $50 million over the next five years and will be paid out of existing local funds, Minister Kirkconnell said.
Some $90 million in investment would be required to redevelop the Grand Cayman airport over the next 20 years, according to a master plan for redevelopment of Cayman’s airports.
Local architect Burns Conolly, who attended Monday night’s meeting, questioned whether the redevelopment should have been pursued as a design-build-finance-operate project with a private sector partner. A similar proposal was considered during the term of the previous United Democratic Party government but was never acted upon.
Mr. Conway indicated that PwC would recommend a public-private partnership arrangement only if Cayman was building a new airport. The redevelopment needs flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances that a design-to-operate proposal might not provide, he said.
The overall redevelopment project as proposed encompasses all three airports in the Cayman Islands, including Little Cayman Airport and Charles Kirkconnell International Airport in Cayman Brac. However, the first five years of the project focus solely on Owen Roberts airport, which is expected to bring the majority of economic returns. A proposed new airport for Little Cayman would have work begin within the next six to seven years under the plan, while the Brac airport improvements – mainly safety-related – would be put off for another decade.
When asked by an audience member Monday how much government had spent on the WSP/PwC consultant’s evaluation, Mr. Kirkconnell said the comprehensive study had cost $600,000.
“It is a waste of money … to put [out] a long-term project if another government comes and tomorrow change[s] all these plan[s],” said local resident Amjed Zuriegat. “We know that the government paid millions of dollars before and put [consultant reports] on the shelf. That’s wasting taxpayers money.”
Mr. Kirkconnell replied that upon taking office in May 2013, the Progressives-led government had identified airport upgrades as a majority national priority and in some ways, had placed the airport project ahead of the cruise port redevelopment in George Town.
He reiterated that the terminal groundbreaking would occur in the first half of 2015. Construction on the expanded terminal buildings is planned in stages. The completion of the first new section of the terminal would be done with “minimal impact” to users of the current terminal, consultants said.
Some portions of the redevelopment project would be left to the private sector, if it wants to invest in them. Retired Cayman Airways pilot Peter Schmid questioned whether any space would be left on the airport grounds for a new private plane hangar. That was thought to be an “opportunity” for private sector investment, consultants replied.
Another attendee asked whether local pension funds might be invested in the airport redevelopment project. A similar proposal was being shopped around by local businessman Bo Miller earlier in the year, but government has made no indication whether it would support such a move.