THE YEAR 2019 has been a tough one in TT. By all indications, 2020 is going to be even more challenging.
As the economy continues to struggle and more people join the breadline, never before has this country so desperately needed creative, bold leadership ready to create and leverage new income-earning opportunities to get us out of this hole.
We have long sat on assets that, with the right mindset, can contribute to economic diversification; the same diversification we’ve prattled on about for decades. The truth is we’ve done nothing to advance that cause.
That reality came into sharp relief with the recent unveiling of the restored President’s House. The building had become a source of national shame, its neglect straddling at least two administrations.
President Paula-Mae Weekes trilled with delight at the restoration, suggesting it should be a source of pride for all citizens.
The interwebs “came for her” with people shouting that spending $89 million on a building is an obscene waste of money. Those funds would have been better spent on flood relief, healthcare or anything other than the crass conceit of an architectural ode to colonialism.
Here’s the thing, though. Many Trinis have absolutely no understanding of the significance of President’s House to our built heritage and national identity.
Citizens aren’t educated about the history and inherent value of our historic buildings. As such, caustic attitudes towards President’s House are understandable.
The President rushed to the scene of the offence with a bag of salt for the wounds. In announcing a lottery for lucky peasants to “win” a chance to visit President’s House, she conclusively proved tone-deafness is an acquired skill.
Nothing’s wrong with spending $89 million to restore President’s House. A building, however, cannot exist merely for its aesthetic charm. President’s House ought to have been restored as part of a wider strategy to activate the Magnificent Seven as income-earning tourism assets.
President’s House should be open to paid tours every day of the week. It must also be available to advertising agencies, television producers, film-makers and photographers, all of whom would pay a fee to use the premises and the building.
Furthermore, given that the Office of the President is little more than a ceremonial office, the President herself should be part of the tours. This she can do in-between her chidings on protocol and propriety.
The sum of $89 million tied to a modern tourism business plan is a sound investment. Without a plan, it’s an absolute waste of money. If our history is anything to go by, maintenance will be neglected and the building will collapse again.
We will then repeat the cycle of scrambling to find a massive amount of money to restore a property earning no money for its upkeep.
A restored Mille Fleurs was also recently unveiled. I remember stepping into Mille Fleurs in the 1990s just after it had been extensively renovated. Carifesta was in town and Mille Fleurs was drafted in as the secretariat for the event.
Over time, as the building remained unoccupied, it fell to ruin again. Money spent on its restoration was essentially squandered because this wasn’t done as part of a larger strategy. So it’s fairly easy to see where President’s House and Mille Fleurs are headed.
The residences of the British monarch in the UK welcome millions of visitors each year. Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace received 1.5 million and 500,000 visitors respectively in 2016. The UK actively cultivates its global reputation as a destination for cultural heritage.
So even the queen accepts that these properties can’t merely exist to coddle the nostalgic feels. But our President wants you to put your name in a hat to win a chance for a visit.
The truth is her outdated mindset is a widespread affliction. Our lack of vision is most dangerously acute in a government that seems chained to the politics and policies of the past.
If you like bitter irony there’s this: our politicians travel the world at our expense. Yet they learn nothing from those experiences that can build a robust, diversified economy earning foreign exchange from multiple sources.
As we enter a new year with complex challenges, we aren’t preparing this country to face the buffeting winds of further economic decline. Instead, we’re bombarded with echoes of a past that threaten to bury us in irrelevance.
There’s just no way we can win in 2020 with 1960s thought processes.
The lights may be on, but no one’s home.