RECENTLY, I attended the 2015 Southern Business Symposium held at the conference room of the National Skills Development Centre (NSDC) in Vieux Fort. The meeting was attended by the Prime Minister, the Mayor of Vieux Fort Winhall Joshua, Senator Debbie Tobierre of True Value, civil servants, and a Who’s Who in the south’s business community. Invited speakers included the managing director of WASCO, the CEO of Invest St. Lucia, and the CEO of SLASPA. It was definitely the place to be to rub shoulders with some of the south’s most powerful and successful residents.
At the meeting, I took the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister and Vieux Fort District Rep a question, or rather I lamented the fact, at least what I perceived to be a fact, that many government physical development projects are implemented in Vieux Fort which the community was unaware of until the construction was well underway, and that community representatives ought to be involved right from the start of project planning and implementation.
The Prime Minister’s response was less than satisfactory, not because he didn’t respond appropriately (actually his response did justice to the question), but because I hadn’t asked the right question. In fact, It was only several days after the symposium, after some reflection, that the right question—Who Runs Vieux Fort?—came to me.
Who runs Vieux Fort? Well, the obvious entity would be the Vieux Fort Town Council. However, from my understanding the Vieux Fort Town Council, renamed the Vieux Fort South Constituency Council, receives barely enough money to pay staff and for operating expenses, so without an adequate and independent source of finance the Council lacks the resources (and maybe the will and creativity) to play a proactive role in the governance of Vieux Fort. And (or) the Council sees itself as simply an extension of the arm of central government and as such its role is simply to rubber stamp government policies and projects. And so it seems that as the Vieux Fort Town Council was renamed and moved from its dilapidated, non-air-conditioned quarters in the Vieux Fort Town Hall Complex to the modern air-conditioned offices in the Builder’s Choice Building Complex at Upper Beane Field, and the official name of the head of the town council changed from Chairman to the more exalted Mayor of Vieux Fort, it has become even more powerless.
Once upon a time the Council staged “Assou Square” and other events, but apparently due to a lack of will or finance or take-charge personnel or both it has ceased from such social and cultural activities and seems to be mostly about collecting garbage in and around Vieux Fort, and playing second fiddle to more proactive groups or persons. When I enquired—complained rather—why the recently concluded 36th St. Lucia independence anniversary celebrations held in Vieux Fort were being organized by Castries folks, I was told that upon realizing that the Vieux Fort independence committee, which included several Vieux Fort Town Council personnel, was not up to the task, Castries administrators felt that to avoid a debacle they had no choice but to take a heavy hand in the planning and orchestrating of the event.
Likewise, when I inquired why the Mayor of Vieux Fort had not made an appearance at the Independence Celebrations, I was told that the Mayor felt slighted for receiving his invitation at the last minute as if an afterthought. You would think that given the celebrations were taking place in the Mayor’s town, and several of his staffers/councillors were members of the Independence Committee, the Mayor, who just a few years ago held the even more exalted position of St. Lucia’s Consul General to Canada, would not only be invited but would be asked to make a presentation. It seems that the former Consul to Canada now Mayor of Vieux Fort has been relegated to a position of irrelevance. Yet, unless I’m missing something, one would have thought that as the Council of the second largest town, the Vieux Fort Town Council would be at least the third (after the Central government and the Castries Town Council) most powerful government organ in the country.
Not too long ago the Town Council had forced produce vendors to move back to the traditional market place at the end of Commercial Street thereby putting a stop to them selling along Clarke Street, crowding the side walk, threatening to invade the street, their produce lying on the ground, hygienically unsightly. Well, gradually the vendors reverted to Clarke Street in similar fashion as before, and now they are occupying Clarke Street in full force, as if the Council had never intervened; saying in effect that the Council doesn’t run things around here.
In his great wisdom, the Prime Minister, Dr. Kenny D Anthony, redefined/reconstituted the Ministry of Tourism to include the Creative Industries and one of the initiatives of the Department of Creative Industries is the Community Artreach programme involving performances by local artists in their communities. Last year, just when, through the dedicated and combined efforts of NyeeneSaltibus, Hilary Saltibus and Christopher Hunte, the Vieux Fort Artreach programme, coined Fete Dimanche, which was being staged at Vieux Fort’s Independence Square, was picking up speed, gaining community support, attracting a sizable audience of families, young children, youths and even mature persons like myself, the Vieux Fort Town Council which though seemingly powerless to organize events, deemed that the Square was inappropriate for such an event and thus put a stop to it. Upon further inquiry, I was told that the Council mistakenly thought that the grass cover at the Square needed as much time as two years before the grounds could be put to normal use, forcing a Councillor who wasn’t privy to the decision to label the Council as inept.
Apparently, the task of organizing “Assou Square” and other such events has fallen on the boisterous and charismatic Douglas Mahy, better known as “Carrot”, but understandably no matter his charisma his ability to stage these events in any given year depends on his success in securing corporate and public funding. Last year, after helping to stage Vieux Fort JounenKwéyòl Day Concert twice in a row, the Council left the staging of the event largely to this one individual.
In fact, Mr.Mahy does single-handedly organize so many events, including Assou Square, Vieux Fort JounenKwéyòl Day Concert, Bruceville Day, Fishermen’s Feast, that one couldn’t be blamed for mistaking him for the Mayor of Vieux Fort.
In the first term of the Dr. Anthony-led SLP government a move was afoot to institute truly empowered, independent, local government. But apparently, parting with such power was too much for the Prime Minister to stomach, so instead of a truly empowered, proactive and independent Vieux Fort Town Council we are left with a Council whose apparently only performance criteria is loyalty to a party and a District Rep seemingly happy to keep it weak and subservient. If, arguably, the most progressive political leader the country has had, in terms of devolution of decision making, didn’t have the stomach for genuine local government, giving communities a significant say in their governance, then can Vieux Fort hold any hope of ever having an empowered Town Council that can effectively run the town?
This is particularly disheartening, for a disempowered Vieux Fort Town Council is a missed opportunity. In many countries local governments are not only actively involved in administrating their jurisdictions but play an important role in their economic development. For example, they provide infrastructural services such as water, wastewater, sewer, local roads, public transportation, and in some cases, power; and they are proactively involved in recruiting and retaining businesses. In these countries local government is viewed as an important agent in the complex process of building ‘institutional robustness’ for ensuring economic development and quality of life. Moreover, local government can foster broad-based citizen participation thus ensuring economic development benefits the entire community.
The Southern Tourism Development Corporation (STDC) was established 17 years ago in 1998 to “co-ordinate the development and advancement of touristic activities in the south of St. Lucia,” but during the past three to four years, despite continuing to receive an annual subvention of about $200,000 from government, for reasons still unclear, STDC has suddenly gone quiet and inactive. However, recently, through the encouragement of the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Industries, there is a move afoot to get STDC back on its feet.
In this social, cultural and leadership vacuum, Friends of Labour, a team which helped the Prime Minister get elected in the last elections (2011), has transformed itself into Vyé-Fo – MouvmanAnsanm, thereby shifting from a political to a social and cultural agenda. In keeping with its social and cultural mandate, the group has been successfully staging such events as Jazz Finale and Emancipation Day Concerts. However, one can well appreciate that their sphere of activity is quite limited.
Again in this socio-economic vacuum and the palpable void left in the wake of an STDC in hibernation, the Vieux Fort Tourism Development Group has recently emerged with the stated goal of spearheading the touristic and economic development of Vieux Fort, exactly the role that the now non-functioning STDC was set up to play. In its first year (2014-2015) of existence the group has pursued and championed the establishment of a marina in Vieux Fort, engaged stakeholders in the restoration and preservation of Pointe Sable Beach, held a tourism symposium on the development of a Vieux Fort tourism product, held a training workshop on the crafting and packaging of heritage tourism tours, and is in the process of establishing heritage tours in Vieux Fort. However, without office space, staff, finance, and full government recognition of the group’s role, there is a limit to what such a volunteer group can undertake and accomplish.
On Tuesday Part 2: THE EXPLOITATION OF VIEUX FORT