EDITORIAL: Pet hippos for NAMCo

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About a year ago, the National Asset Management Company (NAMCo) was being touted as the next big thing. Prime Minister Gaston Browne said that the corporate colossus would be “trading on the Eastern Caribbean Stock Exchange” within three years (now, just two to go), and would be setup with an initial “half a billion dollars in equity.” According to the PM, it was projected to generate “$20 million in annual revenues” and “There would be no other company in the Eastern Caribbean that would have that level of capitalization and that level of profitability….”
The opposition side, along with many others outside of the political circles, immediately nicknamed the entity “NYAMCo”, as they did not get any warm and comfortable feelings with the entity and the limited information that was being provided to the public. They labeled it ‘another bad idea’ designed to hide money from public scrutiny.
The experts, too, chimed in with criticism and observations. Highlighted were the issues of accountability and the possibility of contingent liabilities. As well, there was serious concern that the entity would create conflicts of interests as it would essentially be run by government but would not be subject to the same scrutiny and oversight as if the funds were funnelled through the consolidated fund.
‘Nonsense’ was the the PM’s retort to all of the naysayers. The plan, he said, was to “consolidate” many of the government’s private assets/investments into NAMCo – “a company that is intended, eventually, to operate independent of the government.” NAMCo would be scaled up to create a “super company” that can get “involved in large scale investments, which other private sector enterprises cannot do on their own, or the government, for that matter, will not be able to do.” Further, as far as
the scope of NAMCo’s operations, according to the prime minister, NAMCo will “primarily take on real estate oriented projects” and “the possibility of losses there would be relatively low.”
The first caveat … independence would have to wait until the government sold its majority stake of the Eastern Caribbean Stock Exchange, and in the interim, government ministers would be appointed under the stewardship of Sir Robin Yearwood, who had become chairman. Yearwood immediately sought to allay any fears by giving the assurance that the company’s financials will be regularly tabled in Parliament.
We took a stroll down NAMCo memory lane, because a year on, we have not seen regularly tabled financials in parliament and the scope of investments seems to have changed considerably. The latest news on the NAMCo/“social entrepreneurism” experiment is that the government is intent on getting into the tour business. A move that the taxi operators at Heritage and Redcliffe Quays have summed up as “nonsense” and vowed to fight.
That’s right. According to a recent Cabinet report, the Cabinet invited the principals of a Canadian firm, Hippo Tours Inc. that operates amphibious buses,
to consider entering into an agreement with National Asset Management Comp-any (NAMCo). The reasoning? Cabinet believes that it will be an “expansion of fun services to cruise tourism passengers” and it is predicted to contribute a few dollars to the NAMCo coffers.
This really makes no sense to us. So, private tour operators who have to privately finance and maintain their equipment now have to compete with government-funded tour operators? How can that be fair? All done in the name of ‘we want more unique attractions?’ We note that while giving us the Hippo news, the Information Minister, Melford Nicholas, said that there is need for an upscale night club in Antigua. What’s next? Are we going to hear that NAMCo is setting up that upscale night club to turn it over to an operator?
Look, we understand the need for attractions to make our tourism product more unique and enticing, but we cannot see that this is the correct way to utilise precious state resources and further, we do not see that as being the role of NAMCo or any other government entity. What about cleaning up St. John’s so that it is an attraction in, and of, itself? At the very least, enough to entice people to walk around and spend a few dollars.
The role of government is to facilitate business entrepreneurs and support, as best it can, their success. It is not to actually get into business and compete against private enterprise. And the whole, ‘we will buy the bus and turn it over to independent tour operators to run’ does not mitigate the underlying issue of government getting into traditionally private businesses.
And not to get into the nitty-gritty details of this idea but where are these Hippos going to swim? The minister referenced the sloping area at the Point Wharf as an entry spot, but where do they go from there and what attractions are they going to highlight? From what we have seen, we cannot imagine that these amphibious buses are built for the rough water outside the harbour. So what is the plan for sightseeing from the waterside to make these buses attractive tourist attractions? (We invite you to do a YouTube search to see what we are talking about.)
As we said, we understand the government’s desire to get new attractions, but we just cannot see that this is the right way to do it. We will go as far as to say we like that the administration is thinking outside of the box, but again, this just does not seem like the right way to do it. We hope that the Government will give this one a second look and devise a better strategy to entice investment into the sector.
We invite you to visit www.antiguaobserver.com and give us your feedback on our opinions.

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