Trees and shrubs are growing out of buildings, occupied and abandoned. Empty lots, overgrown with bushes, tall grass, and used as a dumping ground for garbage, are everywhere in this capital city called Port-of-Spain, from Woodbrook in the west to Charlotte Street in the east. Only within the last month were shrubs growing out of the Red House building-historically, the seat of T&T's Parliament-removed as the building finally undergoes an expensive and much-needed refurbishment. Port-of-Spain has all the facets of a city in decline. Poorly maintained public and privately-owned buildings: faded, peeling paint, moss-covered walls, security bars and razor wire around everything, from air-condition units to rooftops. Chacon Street has been reduced to a space for human excrement. Blocks of the city that were destroyed by the looting and fires from the 1990 attempted coup are still empty-a key one being the lot opposite Port-of-Spain's bus terminus, City Gate, on which a 26-storey office complex known as Broadgate was to have been constructed since 2010. That project has gone no where. Port-of-Spain was once known as a place to shop, lime and conduct business.
The glamour of the 1970s and 1980s are gone. Those with longer memories will recall Glendinning's, Stephen's and Johnson's and Woolworth's, all on Frederick Street, in the days when people looked forward to coming into town to shop.
Port-of-Spain has been the capital of T&T since 1757. Previously many citizens would flock to the city, as it was the main centre for retail, government ministries, restaurants as well as being an important financial service centre for the Caribbean. Itis home to the largest container port on the island and one of the several shipping hubs for exporting of both agriculture and manufactured goods. But over the years certain parts of the city have fallen to ruins. Businesses have consistently complained about the inefficient and archaic systems at the port that impact on their overall success. The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2011/12 ranked T&T 81 out of 142 countries. Ronald Ramjattan, the chief executive officer St Lucian food producer, Baron Foods, said it took him five months to wade through several documents to receive an approval for the establishment of a factory in T&T.
More than 400 under-utilised spots.
Not only the issue of efficiency needs to be addressed to boost business in the City, but also the outlook. According to Port-of-Spain mayor Louis Lee Sing, there are more than 430 under-utilised spots in the city, comprising dilapidated buildings with grass is growing out of them, unpainted and peeling walls, abandoned lots and homes, run-down car parks and not to mention smelly alleys and walkways. Pedestrians are also seen walking gingerly on the pavement hoping not to twist their ankles on an unexpected hole or uneven parts. Drivers are forced to negotiate and maneuver their vehicles to avoid gaping potholes and chipped-away pitch from Port-of-Spain's roadways. There is nothing like a quick trip to the City. Citizens complain about having to travel to, or through, Port-of-Spain in traffic that is gridlocked at any hour of the day, just to endure hours of waiting to collect one document from any given government service. Crime is another critical factor, which has moved away from certain areas to more populated ones such as City Gate, Brian Lara Promenade and Frederick Street. The Competitiveness report also stated that the most problematic factors for doing business in T&T are crime and theft, which remain at number one followed by inefficient government bureaucracy, poor work ethic of the nation's workforce and corruption. The woes continue with unsecured parking that deters citizens from venturing into Port-of-Spain to engage in any kind of activity.
What has been done to change things?
During the last administration, attempts were made to modernise and give the city a face-lift by constructing 300 feet high buildings like the Waterfront complex, which stands like a beacon in the nation's capital. This facility that borders the shore line includes two 26-storey office towers at 885,000 square foot combined with a 22-storey, 409,000 square foot, 428-room Hyatt Regency Hotel. It's the largest conference centre in the English-speaking Caribbean at 55,000 square foot. The Waterfront complex provided a platform for T&T to host the Fifth Summit of the Americas in April 2009, whose guests included United States President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Port-of-Spain also hosted The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2009 and Commonwealth Business Forum in 2011. The present administration under the Trade Ministry is seeking to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of doing business by implementing the TTBiz Link, a project that has been ongoing since 2009. TTBizLink is an IT-platform known as a Single Electronic Window (SEW) that is designed to facilitate business and trade.
The City lacks a smile
Louis Lee Sing, the Port-of-Spain mayor, says despite these attempts to dress up the city, it is still suffering from a lack of smile. He said there are too many issues burdening the City. "In addition to crime, lack of property security, congestion and the city littered with street dwellers-there are also too many vacant spots, abandoned and dilapidated buildings in Port-of-Spain. We have a good physical plant, but we have not maintained it properly," he said in an interview at his Citadel office, Port-of-Spain. In an ongoing inventory exercise undertaken by the City Corporation, it revealed there are approximately 435 vacant spots including abandoned and dilapidated buildings. He said the Corporation had passed he list onto the Government for it to indentify which ones are owned by the State, which are privately owned and those that are under the City Corporation. "Once we have done that we would move to monetise the ones we are responsible for."
Lee Sing said land is a scarce commodity in the city and it ought to be properly utilised to generate revenue for the city and encourage professionalism and excellence.
He noted that exorbitant amount of funding is being allocated to restoration rather than maintenance. Drawing an example, he said under the Basdeo Panday Administration approximately 37 million was spent on restoring White Hall, which is still in need of repairs. "We have so many land marks, properties that no provisions have been made for maintenance, for example the Holy Rosary Church, which is in a state of decay." Other eyesores include the old Police Headquarters, the Central Statistical Office building, Red House, old Angostura lot on Nelson Street, most parts of George street and some of the Housing Development Corporation's apartment blocks. He recommended that a committee should be established and a fund exclusively set-up for the maintenance of buildings and other infrastructure like pavements and drains. He said the corporation receives very little money from the City to maintain it. Lee Sing explained that the property taxes generated from the City goes into a consolidated fund, where the Finance Minister then takes the money and disburses it to projects in other parts of Government. "When people pay land and building taxes, the City only gets land taxes and the building taxes goes to the (consolidated) fund.
Lee Sing said there is no legal framework in place to deal with landlords who fail to maintain their properties. "It is difficult to encourage people like NGO's, who were given state land to build within the stipulated three years." But there are those who have not built anything for more than 20 years, he noted. The government has to bring the kind of legislation to encourage people to develop and maintain their properties. Besides legislation as a solution, Lee Sing said there should be a balance of between residence and businesses throughout the city. It should not be overun with only commerce, he said. Apart from these issues Lee Sing said paid parking is coming and the Corporation would be dealing with the issue of street vending. "We are hoping to turn lower Charlotte Street into a pedestrian mall and once that is done there would be zero tolerance of street vending." He said so far the Corporation has undertaken 68 projects, which include more restoration work and infrastructure like drains and pavements. Lee Sing said there are about 3,000 pit latrine being used by residents of the city in 2012. The Corporation is spending about $2 million on 87 projects that include the replacement of these pit latrines with proper bathroom facilities. He said Port-of-Spain has the potential to be the best City in the region. "We have a good inheritance and we must not squander it."
The City losing business
President of the Downtown Merchants Association Gregory Aboud said consumer spending is down significantly due to the many issues plaguing the City. Aboud said it is a two-fold decline where the weakness in the global economy has reduced consumer confidence. And Port-of-Spain has not done enough to compete with other options available to consumers such as MovieTowne, Falls of West Mall and Trincity mall, said Aboud, who owns clothe stores in the capital.
"The city is at crossroads facing very serious decisions about its future." For example, he said Port-of-Spain is losing businesses. He said within the last 18 months, 12 Port-of-Spain stores have closed down, including a huge sports goods store and apparel, hardware, shoe stores. An electronics store is in the process of closing its doors.
Similar to Mayor Lee Sing, Aboud said crime, security, secured parking and congestion are some of the factors affecting the confidence of businesses that are located in Port-of-Spain and those that are thinking of coming into the City.
There is a migration of buinesses from the city, he said. In many developed countries governments recognised the crucial nature of parking and provided municipal parking. Asked what role is the busines sector playing to improve the physical structures of their buildings, Aboud said some businesses are afraid to invest because cnsumers are not sending and they are facing unjust competiton from hustlers who line up in front their stores and lure away their customers. Nothwithstanding that there are some store like Francis Fashion and Detours that have invested heavily in their buidlings. But the diminished outlook of customers have hurt the city.