AT a party several years ago, I found myself part of a group discussing the economic plight of Vieux Fort. In a momentary quiet space in the loud exchanges, the calm measured voice of my brother, Dr. Prosper Reynolds, a macroeconomic professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (presently conducting pioneering research on the Economics of Religion), who was home for the Christmas season, was heard saying that here we were talking about the backwardness of Vieux Fort people, but in the twenty-five years since he had migrated to the U.S. there had been no new enterprises that offered significant employment.
I was taken aback by the simple truth of the statement. My brother was right. True, in that time, the island’s largest fishery complex, a free zone complex, and the national stadium had come to Vieux Fort, but these facilities are underutilized and they can hardly be counted as employment meccas. In fact, as alluded to earlier, it seemed that not only has there been no new large employment enterprises, but such as there were have contracted. As mentioned above, maybe half of Vieux Fort’s factory shells that once buzzed with activity are now quiet and rusting under the combined action of the salt laden breezes of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Containerized cargo shipments have sharply curtailed both the number of and wages paid to stevedores, who once upon a time earned in three days what their children’s much better educated teachers took a whole week to earn. Sharp declines in banana production and the number of banana farmers nearly forced Winera, the paper and cardboard plant, to shut down. Yet, all this was before the current six-year (and counting) recession.
So then was it any wonder that Vieux Fort had become one of the island’s centres of drug trafficking, crime, and gang violence, where it was rumoured that some of the town’s most prominent and seemingly successful business persons were the ones fueling the drug enterprise; where gang activity may have represented the largest source of added employment since independence? In fact, so prominent were crime and gang violence in Vieux Fort, that a certain freelance newspaper journalist was making a living out of reporting police shootings and gang warfare, as if this were the only news coming out of Vieux Fort worthy of printing. Vieux Fort, I am sure, is sighing with relief that it is several years now that the violence has abated and that the current recession hasn’t been accompanied by a spate of criminal activity.
Interestingly, Vieux Fort with its wide expanse of flat land, an international airport, an oceangoing seaport, and thanks to the Americans, a road infrastructural base unmatched anywhere else on the island, has, as mentioned above, always been considered St. Lucia’s last frontier. An infrastructure that over the years has led many to keep comparing Vieux Fort to Castries, when in truth and in fact there is no comparison, at least not in terms of population, jobs, and economic activity. Compared to Castries, Vieux Fort is a village and should be compared more with Soufriere and Micoud than with Castries. It is a comparison that is causing harm to Vieux Fort, because it suggests that the two towns are rivals and in close competition, therefore folks in the north, especially those occupying important government positions, need to guard the country’s resources against Vieux Fort surpassing Castries, an almost impossible scenario when you consider the prosperity of the Castries- Gros Islet corridor along with the fact that Castries is the seat of a heavily centralized government.
If skeptics view the above characterization of Castries’ disposition towards the South as baseless or too much of a stretch, consider that even as far back as 1763, one by the name of M. de Rochmore wrote, “It is essential that those two towns,” meaning Vieux Fort and Soufriere, “should not develop too much and compete with Carénage,” later renamed Castries. Surely, skepticism or not, this doesn’t warm the hearts of Vieux Fortians, and no doubt makes them wonder to what extent this Castries sentiment still exists, and how often well intended government policies to help Vieux Fort and the other southern districts get waylaid by civil servants harbouring the sentiments of Rochmore. Any validity to this conspiracy theory suggests there is even more reason that Vieux Fort has a strong and proactive entity looking after, protecting its interest.
Fooled may be by all this infrastructure, talk of the last frontier, and the Vieux Fort-Castries comparison, businesses have sometimes rushed to open their doors in Vieux Fort, only to close those same doors shortly after they were opened because of the paucity of customers passing through them. Unsurprisingly, this has left a lot of people bitter, and the saying goes that Vieux Fort is cursed, nothing works there, and nothing succeeds; which no doubt brings to the mind of the older Vieux Fort folks of the priest who full of disgust for Vieux Fort climbed to the top of Calvary Hill, took off his sandal, shook the dust off it, thereby cursing Vieux Fort, causing the town, as in Deuteronomy 25:4-14, to be forever unsandaled.
This attitude towards Vieux Fort is a bit comical, because it seems that few have considered that the town and its environs just don’t have the critical mass of population and purchasing power (household income) to support all but the most basic needs enterprises, or those whose patronage are national and/or international rather than local. It is as if very few persons have entertained the notion that what is required to push Vieux Fort along its development path is the creation of say five hundred to a thousand good paying jobs, those paying $3500 plus a month.
Priests and curses aside, another puzzling phenomenon is that rent in Vieux Fort appears to be out of whack with the level of economic activity in the town; it’s as if landlords are basing their rent on the level of business activity to be had in Castries, which is multiple times greater than what obtains in Vieux Fort.
At the 2015 Southern Business Symposium mentioned above, the CEO of SLASPA, Keigan Cox, though optimistic that he can turn things around at Port Vieux Fort, emphatically pointed out that the Vieux Fort containerized cargo port isn’t competitive, and possesses no natural, inherent, or strategic sources of competitiveness, and that the only avenues open to improve its competitiveness rests with improving worker efficiency, the willingness of employees to work more flexible hours to mesh with importers’ schedules, and keeping the cost of operation under lids. He said that one of the reasons for Port Vieux Fort’s non-competitiveness relative to Port Castries and other major Caribbean ports is the paucity of economic activity in Vieux Fort, meaning that the cargo arriving at the port for use in Vieux Fort is just too limited to ensure a viable or profitable seaport business.
This in a nutshell is the critical economic problem facing Vieux Fort—insufficient economic activity—which means insufficient jobs, especially good paying jobs, to support a range of activities and business endeavours. When bananas was booming in the late 80’s and early 90’s, albeit at the cost of an environmental disaster that we are still paying for, and the queue of banana trucks and pickups waiting to off load stretched from the Vieux Fort Dock to the round-about, there was plenty of economic activity in Vieux Fort: shops were overflowing with people, traffic jams were the norm, farmers with their FAR licence plate pickups ruled the land, prophets were warning the nation of the possible consequence of its profligate living.
But these feverish banana days are gone and unlikely to return, and have not been replaced by anything comparable. And for a while there, back in the 1970’s, during the era of Halcyon Days when half-naked tourists on red, double-decker buses cruised the town, when, besides the hotel, Seroc, the Canadian construction firm, changed the course of the Vieux Fort River to its current location, and Beanefield Airport was lengthened and renamed Hewanorra International in honour of the vanquished Caribs, and the Vieux Fort-Castries Highway was widened and straightened, and Winera and the Brewery established themselves, and John Compton’s industrialization of Vieux Fort was in full swing, and the Canadian gift of the Junior Secondary doubled the number of secondary schools in Vieux Fort, it appeared that Vieux Fort had finally arrived, probably reminding the older folks of the good old days of the Americans, but as hinted above this too was short-lived, the subsequent struggles of Halcyon Days turned Club Med turned Coconut Bay to stay alive serving as a metaphor for the state of Vieux Fort.
What then is the overall economic plan for Vieux Fort, and who is championing that plan? Well, if there is one thing Vieux Fort hasn’t lacked, it is development plans, for over the years there have been almost as many plans as administrations. However, despite all these plans, Vieux Fort’s physical development appears to follow no plan. It seems that whenever foreign funds are secured for a project it is planted wherever at the moment is easiest and most convenient, and there is no Vieux Fort entity to regularize the location of these projects.
Some argue that the fisheries complex is misplaced, that it should have been built further west, leaving the mouth of Vieux Fort for home porting and cruise ship activities where visitors upon disembarking can walk right through the town; the free zone is built in the area that would be needed for airport expansion; the placement of the Vieux Fort basketball court is in violation of the plan that was laid down for the stretch of ground lying between the Castries-Vieux Fort Highway and the Bruceville Road; Wilrock is currently using lands intended for entertainment and touristic development to store its sand and rock aggregates. Billed an ultra-modern meat processing facility, the EC$12.5 million abattoir at Beausjour, supposedly completed since 2011, courtesy of the Taiwanese government, is yet to process a carcass. In the absence of a Vieux Fort coordinating body serving to vet all such developments, Vieux Fort’s development is at best haphazard and chaotic.
And sitting across the road from Pointe Sable Beach, Recreational Park that many have advocated should remain a park, and as such expanded and enhanced, is in danger of being turned into a medical school or some other development. So passionate are Vieux Fortians about the park that some members of the Dr. Kenny Anthony’s “Friends of Labour”, turned Vyé-Fo – Mouvman Ansanm , who as mentioned before was instrumental in him winning the 2011 elections (by his largest margin yet), have threatened to actively campaign, lobby, even picket, against any alternative use of the park space. The concerns and passion of the many advocates of the park are understandable, for given how fast the open spaces of Vieux Fort are disappearing, the project, prized for its accessibility and proximity to the community and the inviting and picturesque Pointe Sable Beach, may be Vieux Fort’s last hope of having a truly multipurpose recreation park that can cater for, among other things, concerts, casual recreation, and a children’s playground. Moreover, research has shown that recreation parks enhance the family-friendliness of communities and have a positive impact on childhood development, neighbourhood safety, public health, and public arts and cultural events.
Notwithstanding, given its air and sea port, its relatively flat expanse of land, and its road infrastructure, Vieux Fort lends itself to a number of undertakings that could improve the southern region’s economic viability. The current government’s push to turn Vieux Fort into a University Park is already paying dividends. The marina as proposed and advocated by the Vieux Fort Tourism Group is another.
Spontaneously, because of its available space, Vieux Fort has emerged, even in the absence of dedicated race tracks, as the centre of horse racing and drag car racing on the island. However, to grow these events into compelling and consistent economic activities they need dedicated race tracks. Before the Vieux Fort plains disappear, the government would do well to assign parcels of land for the development of dedicated race tracks for these two activities.
Because of limited recreation and entertainment activities in Vieux Fort, some executives of Vieux Fort-based firms are opting to live in the north and commute daily. The establishment of a golf course and other such facilities in Vieux Fort may well encourage these executives to reside in the district and may even lure others into coming down to Vieux Fort on weekends. A well-equipped children’s playground would also help improve the attractiveness of Vieux Fort as a place to reside.
Vieux Fort has proven to be ideal for the hosting of large events including Independence Day Celebrations, Jounen Kwéyòl Concerts, Jazz Festival Concerts, Kite Surfing Fiesta Concerts, Caribbean YouthFest, and, as previously mentioned, horse racing and drag car racing. Establishing these activities as annual calendar events would help market Vieux Fort as an attraction, would help create demand for Vieux Fort businesses and would augment the districts natural, cultural and historical attractions as visitor pull factors.
Besides the obvious —hotels, factories, informatics parks—these are just a few possible avenues of expanding economic activity in Vieux Fort, and this list is by no means exhaustive. But again, who will advocate and champion this and other development suggestions? Who will constantly and proactively seek avenues to develop Vieux Fort? Who will ensure that any development is consistent with the overall development plan for Vieux Fort? Who runs Vieux Fort?
On SATURDAY”: VIEUX FORT, A FREAK OF NATURE?