Cayman was built on two pillars – its people and its peaceful, pristine environment.
After 40 years of development, it is past time we carefully examine both and make the necessary adjustments toward a sustainable future.
We built a country without a proper development plan and totally ignored our infrastructure during the boom years. As everyone should know, infrastructure is like the foundation of a house; it is impossible to build a good roof on a crumbling foundation. Retrofitting is always more expensive than doing it right at the start, but at this juncture, we have no choice.
We are now at place similar to that of a Caymanian seaman when he first visited New York years ago. He was talking to his friend from a telephone booth trying to describe where he was: “I’m at the corner of WALK and DON’T WALK,” he said.
We are at a crossroads – many believe, and hope that we can simply make a few tweaks here and there, and just continue and all will be right. Others like me are convinced that the 40-year economic model has expired and the evidence is all around us. Grand Cayman cannot handle any more development until adequate infrastructure is put in place. Those who believe that economic growth is only possible by tearing down more mangroves, dredging more holes, pouring concrete in swamps and now the ocean, draining waste down into our water lenses, etc. are short-sighted. The reality is that with vision, sound strategies and sensible plans that include ALL our people, we can create a well-designed infrastructure funding mechanism. This can create the largest economic expansion in our history while laying the foundations for future development, which should be the prerogative of the next generation.
The flavor-of-the-month infrastructure is the building of a cruise port. The question is not whether we need a port improvement or not, it is whether we are prepared to sacrifice the very marine attractions which bring our visitors here in the first place. Anyone who takes the time to read Baird’s environmental impact assessment report would conclude that the risk and possible destruction of our marine environment far outweigh the purported, and unsupported benefits. This conclusion does not mean that we should not improve what we have, as there is always room for improvement. (It is worth noting on page 1 of the Baird report, this quote: “Baird accepts no responsibility for damages, if any, suffered by any third party as a result of decisions made or actions based on this report.” This should give us all reason for pause.)
Short-sighted, and/or self-serving thinking is why we find ourselves in the position we are in today. One cannot look at a single project in isolation; there must be a cohesive approach as we develop a vision to deal with the massive infrastructure needs of the country. The recent EY report estimates the costs of Cayman’s infrastructure needs is in the $1 billion dollar range. If we were to use a common sense approach to prioritize, it would look something like the following:
- The dump must be cleaned up and a new waste management facility developed
- Proper sewage collection and treatment must be provided in the heavily populated districts of George Town, West Bay and Bodden Town
- The airport must be developed within a sensible period and not in a piecemeal fashion
- Protection of our marine environment must be enforced and expanded
- Roads must be maintained, upgraded and expanded
- The seaport must be redeveloped in an environmentally sound manner.
I could go on but I’m sure we see the picture – the vision.
Economic conditions compound our problems. The country has total debts in the region of $1.7 billion and cannot borrow (per the U.K.). Compare this to Greece who recently defaulted on a $1.8 billion debt, with a population of approximately 10 million Greeks; Cayman has less than 40,000 citizens. We have people losing jobs, properties, businesses and hope because of the downsizing of the financial services industry, changing demographics, failed immigration and educational policies etc. So where will the economic opportunities be found in the future Cayman? If the goal is to simply provide a few hundred jobs, as the proponents of this plan insist, then we really don’t have a big problem, as we already have 20,000-plus jobs we cannot fill. But if our goal is to provide upward economic mobility, ownership and creation of wealth for all our people, then we have to work on a shared vision of the future we want.
I firmly believe that the environment is what will feed the next generation, not hedge funds. When you look at the tourism attractions Cayman has to offer, the God-given natural ones are far superior to the man-made ones. It is almost impossible to put a monetary value on the marine environment. Statistics show that a greater percentage of cruise passengers go in the water than anywhere else, including into George Town harbor. So why in the world would any right-minded person conclude that destroying it would help us sell more jewelry, rum cakes or $12 hamburgers?
Why would any government embarking on such a complex issue back themselves into a corner of only considering one option? This total reliance on so-called experts and consultants and the ignoring of common sense and our own people’s advice displays an arrogance, dereliction of duty and accountability that has led to the replacement of several elected governments in recent times.
There are new technologies available today which minimize the damage to the environment, but these were ignored and now there is no Plan B. I would urge the policy makers to reopen their minds to these considerations without delay.
And now for the elephant in the room – how are we going to pay for it?
Whoever funds the infrastructure needs of Cayman will own our future. Banking as we knew it 10 years ago is over. New and creative methods must be found to fund both large-scale infrastructure and small businesses; the signs are all around us that this industry is fast disappearing. Therefore my question is – why can we not own our future? This is where you need visionary leaders who can create out–of-the box initiatives, not politicians whose self-interests override the national interests. Presently it appears that the following are our financing options:
- More government debt
- Financing by cruise lines with 40-50+ years payback
- Financing by a large conglomerate with 40-50+ years payback.
But what about another option, namely financing by our people and letting our people become investors and owners – and controlling our destiny?
There is an old saying:“Opportunity knocks once.” We are at a special place in our development, able to reinvent ourselves and take advantage of many of the positives we have achieved over the past 40 years to create a new economic model. This model is slightly different from the one that gave us the 40-year miracle where the foreign investor and Caymanian worker joined forces. It is now time for the Caymanians to become the investors and owners wherever possible, bearing in mind that we will still need a portion of the former. If we seize this opportunity, we will make our children proud and our grandchildren wealthy.
Caymanian banks (per CIMA) have approximately $10 billion dollars in deposits; Caymanian pensions have approximately $1.2 billion invested in overseas markets and many residents have amassed considerable wealth. In addition we have some of the brightest financial minds on the planet. So we have two of the three mai
n ingredients to make this dream a reality. What are we lacking is a clear vision and a government with an open mind that does not want to control and micro-manage major projects (see the auditor general’s reports on what a failure this has been over the recent past). The question we must all ask our leaders is why do they not want your people to become owners in our country? Would they prefer we all line up at social services and CINICO and become a “dependency society?” We are already too far down that road and while the “haves” in our society build mansions and buy big boats and fancy cars, many others are riding a wave from middle class to poor class. And that dreaded scourge “crime” is on the march. We can change this, if only the “Me and Me Ltd.” crowd would open their minds and let us form a “We and Us Ltd.” instead.
Our forefathers were adamant that they would leave a better place for their children and grandchildren than they experienced, and they succeeded. The question is will this generation succeed, or will our grandchildren become “the screwed generation?” It may take more than concrete in George Town harbor to save them.