EDITORIAL: Another $20 million plus

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Prime Minister Gaston Browne recently revealed that the government still owed the former owners of Half Moon Bay (HMB) over U.S. $20 million.  This hefty amount is the remnant of the award given by the courts for the compulsory acquisition of the property over 10 years ago.  Correction. 10 years, 200 acres and over U.S. $23 million ago. That’s right! So far, we have forked over U.S. $23 million towards extinguishing the original purchase price (plus the interest), chucked in an additional 200 acres of land to a new developer to sweeten the deal, and spent gobs of money on lawyers and court appearances over a period well exceeding a decade. 
Unfortunately for the current administration, government is continuous, so this steaming pile of smelly dung has fallen into their laps to be cleaned up. Before we go any further, we need to place on record, once again, our feelings regarding compulsory acquisition in cases like this: Meaning, taking privately-owned land from one  individual to give or sell to another private individual. In our minds, there is just nothing right about that.We certainly support the right of government to acquire land for a truly public purpose such as building, a public road or expanding an airport or runway, but to say that you do not like how a person is developing his or her land and prefer someone else to have it, just rubs us the wrong way.  That, of course, is our opinion since the government clearly has the law on its side. 
After all, this issue has seen the inside of courtrooms on too many occasions, including the Privy Council.  Regardless of the government’s legal vindication, the ‘take from one to give to another’ policy needs to be revisited and we suggest scrapped.  One need only look at the mess we are currently in regarding HMB and the reasons will become evident.This all began in 1995 when a devastating Category 5 hurricane came ashore and destroyed the Half Moon Bay Resort. After that, there was a string of ‘he-said/she-said’ events that eventually saw the then Antigua Labour Party (ALP)-controlled government deciding that it was going to compulsorily acquire the property.The reason? The government was fed-up with the owners for allowing one of our greatest assets to become derelict despite their efforts to entice them to rebuild.  Not only that,  apparently there were investors willing to develop the property, including, at one time, R. Allen Stanford. The long and short of it was that the owners and the government were at loggerheads.  Things got nasty to the point where Natalia Querard, a key shareholder in HMB Holdings Ltd., was publicly branded an “enemy of the state” by Asot Michael who was an ALP Senator at the time.
The entire issue became a political football. The ALP made moves to compulsorily acquire in 2002 and the United Progressive Party (UPP) publicly announced that they would cease the action and/or return the property if they were elected to power in 2004. As we now know, the UPP attempted to give back the property with conditions. The negotiations failed, and the UPP decided to continue with the ALP’s plan to acquire.  At the end of a lengthy legal battle that reached as far as the Privy Council, the government was given the green light to acquire the property at a value of U.S. $26,616,998 plus interest, etc. In early 2015, Prime Minister Gaston Browne revealed a solution. 
Given that HMB was only worth about U.S. $20 million, the government would throw in an extra 200 acres of freehold land, on top of the original 108 acres, to get an investor to pony up enough money to pay off the former HMB owners. We know that this brief trip down memory lane is simplistic and does not do this very complicated issue justice, but some background is necessary to show the folly.  Put simply, you don’t pick up an expensive item at the store, tell the cashier that you have no money and run out the door.  Then, with item in hand, you start to haggle on the price and claim that the store owner is being unreasonable.
Ms. Querard has been painted a villain for her stance but we wonder how many people would have done the same if in her position?  We understand that the government was frustrated, but surely there was a better route than the one taken, because over a decade later we have not moved the needle much, at least not in the right direction.  We still owe over U.S. $20 million, there is no new hotel at Half Moon Bay and we got more than a bit of bad press in the meanwhile.We have said it before, but we will say it again:  The lesson to be learned is that government should not acquire anything from one private individual for another private individual, and worse, when it does not know the price and does not have the money to pay for it.
We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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