With the port referendum drawing closer, the government has organised a series of eight big public meetings for disseminating information and answering voters’ questions about the proposed new cruise berthing facility, the first of which took place at Mary Miller Hall on 12 November.
Many points of concern were addressed as the evening unfolded, first with detailed presentations and later with a series of questions which attendees were invited to write down on pieces of paper before being read out to the panelists Premier, Hon Alden McLaughlin, Deputy Premier Hon. Moses Kirkconnell, and Michael Bayley representing the Verdant Isle Consortium.
MLA for Prospect Austin Harris spoke first of all: “I stood against this in 2017 but information changed my mind,” he explained. “it is your right to challenge and question. Ask as many questions as you feel satisfy you,” he said.
Premier Alden McLaughlin explained that the purpose of these meetings was to try to provide as much information as possible for voters in the run-up to the referendum on 19 December, while cautioning against letting strong feelings about the port divide the community. “This debate has taken on an ugly tone and we should all remember that we are all Caymanians or residents here who have strong feelings for this place…but we can disagree…without spewing hate at people who might have a different point of view,” he said. “All of us campaigned on a platform for the need for cruise berthing so we believe we have a mandate…The referendum has been triggered and the Government supports that process. I hope what we have over the next few weeks we have a proper campaign on both sides.”
Hon. Moses Kirkconnell explained that, while the government had taken significant steps to improve the airport facilities thereby attracting more stayover tourists, the peak time for these tourists was winter, whereas the peak for cruise ship tourists was the summer: “business is 365 days a year, so we looked at peaks and valleys, and how the valleys could raise up,” he said. Mr. Kirkconnell also explained that because of the improvements to the airport, the constraints of the government’s budget meant there could be no government funding for a much-needed enhancement to the port’s cargo facilities, and that the new plan would solve that issue, because it would address growing cargo handling capabilities in the same deal with the consortium, as part of the “Design, build and finance,” model.
Michael Bayley of Verdant Isle outlined some of the facts of the project: “there will be no financial risk to the Cayman Islands Government,” he said, because the developers would be taking all the risk, and reimbursed through an arrivals fee. “At the end of the 25 years that asset (valued at 450 million dollars) becomes the property of Cayman, he said. “Control of the port remains with the people of the Cayman Islands through the Port Authority of the Cayman Islands.”
A strong theme throughout the presentations was that the key players had taken concerns relating to environmental degradation very seriously, and had changed the initial plan by reducing the project’s “footprint,” (in this case meaning the undersea area covered) by 30 percent and also by the use of concrete pillars under the walkway, which would allow for the free movement of sea currents and marine life. There had also been a change of plan from hydraulic dredging which would cause a high degree of turbidity, to mechanical dredging which it was claimed, would keep turbidity to a minimum. An expert in coral replanting, Dr. Vaughn, had been engaged and he would help oversee the project to not only move corals away from the danger area, but plant many thousands of micro-corals, using a pioneering technique he had developed. During the question and answer session, one of the questions, addressed to Mr. Bayley, was: “what will happen if we do not build a pier?” to which Mr. Bayley replied that the super-large ships such as those of the Oasis class would not be able to come to Cayman.
Another question was: “How many jobs will be lost by not tendering?” to which Mr. Bayley replied that the cruise ship companies would work with the tenders to produce a “Soft landing,” and that tendering would not be completely eliminated. There is also the opportunity to convert their business into other types of business, he explained.