Unicomer is no newcomer to the Trinidad and Tobago landscape. It is the parent company of Courts, the furniture chain, and also owns the regional Radio Shack franchise. But the company’s decision to open a 240,000-square-foot facility in Freeport is a renewed demonstration of confidence in the local economy, notwithstanding the current weather conditions. It further has the potential to trigger growth in business in Freeport and to further decentralisation of commerce in Trinidad and Tobago overall.
Unicomer’s $336.5 million Freeport Campus will do more than just house a Courts outlet and offices. Already, the project has triggered economic activity in the banking sector, since the facility was funded through loans on the local market. The construction of the 25-acre facility also involved several local contractors. A distribution centre which will be based at the campus will create hundreds of jobs for people in the Freeport area and elsewhere.
This is all the more notable given the economic conditions. Even as it pushed forward with the project, Unicomer was asked by local firms for payment in US currency due to the shortage of foreign exchange.
“Many of the local contractors would ask us if we would pay them in US dollars so that they could import some of the products they needed,” said vice-chairman and executive vice-president of the Unicomer Group, Guillermo J Siman, during the formal opening of the 240,000-square-foot facility in Freeport. “You do need to … generate new industries that can start to generate that foreign currency that the country needs.”
In today’s globalised world, the need for foreign currency is inevitable. Consumer appetite has shifted rapidly, while the local manufacturing sector has not been able to keep pace. Unicomer is no different from many local firms wrestling with an artificial foreign currency environment that has been maintained by successive governments in an effort to protect consumers and insulate the economy from potentially dire shocks.
But Unicomer’s investment in Freeport — as well as its model of operation — is an example of the kind of business activity that must be stimulated if we are to begin to generate exports that can balance the currency equation. We cannot depend on oil and gas. And we must figure out regional models of operation that will make it easier to cater to local demand without an unhealthy foreign exchange deficit.
Overall, this latest facility is an example of a company putting its money where its mouth is. Too often, sabre-rattling takes place when any efforts are made to address the economic conditions that we face. Foreign investment is a crucial avenue of economic stimulation in the short run and the long run. To court it is not to invite people to raid resources. On the contrary, such investment results in tangible benefits locally, has a trickle effect and bolsters confidence in our economy in the long run.
Which is not to say there should not be a balance between the need to provide incentives to invest and regulation.
The debate over the energy sector regime and measures that were designed to attract foreign investment there is emblematic of two impulses that must be equally served: we must open our doors to trade, but we must also have proper State practices in place that allow fairness to prevail.
Meanwhile, in order for us to grow and develop as an economy, it makes sense for us to draw on expertise and capital that are available and willing to be put to productive use. Unicomer is hopefully just the start of what could be a Freeport renaissance.
According to Trade and Investment Minister Paula Gopee-Scoon, the State expects $3 billion worth of new business to be opened in the next two to three years. It is hoped such a development will energise the economy and help the push for much-needed diversification.