Year in Review: Storm over port development dominated 2019

An architect's impression of how the new port could look.

No story dominated the national conversation in 2019 more than the ongoing debate over plans for new cruise and cargo piers for George Town Harbour.

As the year started, campaigners were in the midst of gathering signatures for a petition to force a people-initiated referendum on the project.

At the time, there were outstanding questions over the cost and design of the piers, among other concerns, but few in power seemed to believe the protesters would get the required numbers to force a public vote.

But, door by door, signature by signature, they crept towards their target of 5,292 names – 25% of the electorate.

As the numbers ticked steadily upwards, government continued to announce progress on procurement of a preferred bidder for the project.

A milestone appeared to have been reached when Cruise Port Referendum Cayman announced it had hit its target in May.

After negotiations with the Governor’s Office and others over what should happen next, CPR Cayman officially handed over the petition to the Elections Office in June.

Cruise Port Referendum Cayman campaigners delivered the petition to Elections Supervisor Wesley Howell, seated, centre.

In the absence of any clear legislation directing the next step, Elections Supervisor Wesley Howell announced that every single signature must be verified by Elections Office staff.

Over the course of the next few months, staff went door-to-door across the island to collect signed affidavits from everyone on the petition, confirming that they supported the referendum.

The Verdant Isle deal

This process was still ongoing when government announced in July that the Verdant Isle Port Partners – a consortium involving Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and construction firms McAlpine and Orion Marine – had been selected as the preferred bidder on the project.

At a press conference, they revealed key details of the development for the first time, including the cost, the funding formula and the outline designs.

They said the piers would cost just less than $200 million and would be paid for by Verdant Isle through a mix of bank financing and a capital injection from the cruise lines.

The consortium would recoup its investment and make some profit over the next 25 years through a per-passenger port user fee of around $8. That money would come from a mix of cash that currently goes to tender boat operators and a $2.32 cut of the money that currently goes to government.

At the time, Premier Alden McLaughlin said government expected to come out ahead on tax revenue because of an increased number of passengers.

He said government had struck a unique deal that secured the future of the cruise industry without any financial risk to the government.

Petition verified

The campaign for a referendum continued, with protesters casting doubt on the financial formula and decrying the lack of information on the environmental impact of the new designs.

CPR Cayman claimed government would end up paying millions of dollars per year for the port in lost tax revenue.

The group has also argued that the number of cruise tourists envisaged from the development would have a negative impact on the island’s more lucrative stayover tourism sector.

The campaign kicked up a notch when the Elections Office announced in early September that it had verified enough signatures to trigger a people-initiated referendum.

Premier McLaughlin refuted claims that government would try to duck the vote and said a poll would be called “as quickly as possible”.

As Cabinet began drafting a bill, campaigners called for the vote to be delayed at least until new environmental and business case reports were available.

“In the interest of good governance in our first people-initiated referendum, it is imperative that the Caymanian people have the opportunity to make a fully informed decision at the polls,” CPR Cayman said in an open letter to Cabinet in September.

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean boss Michael Bayley, in his first interview since the company was announced as part of the port bid, told the Cayman Compass that a new cruise berthing facility could see arrival numbers surge past 2.5 million.

While some welcomed this prediction, others warned that such a jump in numbers was unsustainable.

The port bill

A bill paving the way for the referendum and setting the date as 19 Dec. 2019 and outlining the wording of the question was published in early October and scheduled for debate in the Legislative Assembly later that month.

In an interview with the Compass, Premier McLaughlin said he believed people supported the port and that government would prevail in the referendum.

The bill was debated over two days at the end of October, with nearly every legislator weighing in.

Government back bencher Bernie Bush came out against the port during the debate and switched sides to the opposition benches.

The bill passed after government made amendments to remove the date and the question in an effort to stave off legal action.

The same question and date were later included in the regulations and a lawsuit has since been filed questioning the fairness of the process outlined in the bill.

The campaign

The passage of the law and the setting of 19 Dec. as the referendum date was the sounding of the starter’s pistol for a frenzy of campaigning.

Government, the Opposition and CPR Cayman held a series of public meetings and rallies, while social media, newspapers, online blogs and radio talk shows became a forum for all-out debate on the topic.

Everything from the merits of coral relocation and the future of the tender boat business to the economic value of cruise passengers and the impact of the planned cargo port expansion were scrutinised from every angle.

But still, the lack of updated environmental reports and the lack of campaign finance legislation, caused concern for some.

The lawsuit

Shirley Roulstone, a leading member of CPR Cayman, took those concerns a step further, filing for a judicial review of the process in December. The National Trust also brought a legal challenge.

On 3 Dec., Grand Court judge Tim Owen, QC, decided that there was an arguable case and ordered that the referendum be postponed until the merits of the argument could be considered by the court.

The campaigners have numerous complaints, but essentially they are asking the Grand Court to review the mechanisms government has put in place for the referendum, to ensure it is a free and fair vote.

A trial has been tentatively scheduled for 20 Jan. 2020, and it now seems unlikely that a referendum will be held until March next year, at the earliest.

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