Headline — 20 August 2013 — by Adele Ramos
GOB “strongs” Ashcroft’s Commerce Bight Port

The lease for the port has been revoked

Michael Ashcroft’s Private Investment Limited (PIL), a financial institution in the Turks and Caicos, is expected to challenge the recent decision by the Barrow administration to assume control of the Commerce Bight Port, a few miles south of Dangriga.

The clash comes after Government moved recently to revoke the lease for the port, which was held by Port of Belize Limited (PBL) – a company which PIL had put in receivership last January.

With Cabinet authorization, Minister of Works and Transport Rene Montero signed an order on Thursday, August 15, 2013, revoking the lease granted to Port of Belize Limited. As a result of the order, Montero arranged for Government to assume immediate control of the Commerce Bight Port.

Errol Gentle, the Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Works & Transport, told Amandala that he served the notice at 10:00 a.m. this morning on the receivers.

Gentle said that the Commerce Bight Port has not been in operation; he is not certain for how long.

“We need to try and upgrade the port and get it fully operational. The Commerce Bight Port will be under the control of the Belize Port Authority,” said Gentle.

PBL’s receiver, Arturo Vasquez, told Amandala today the matter is in the hands of the attorneys.

Vasquez said that while that port is not currently in operation, they had formulated a business plan for it since he has been in office. The site, he said, is manned with 24-7 security, and it had not been totally abandoned, but it did receive a couple small cruise ships last year.

According to the receiver, what has so far not been addressed in court is the question of why no development has transpired at the site. Vasquez said that the door is now open for an injunction to be pursued again. The company is represented by Courtenay Coye LLP.

“One of the big obstacles, I know, was the fact that Government never allowed the Port to purchase the property,” said Vasquez.

Vasquez said that the company would not have pursued such a major development on land that it does not own, and although they made several offers to purchase the property, Government has not sold it to them.

He said that throughout the period, there have been several attempts by Government to sabotage and take over the land.

The Government says the revocation was executed under clause 16 of the lease to operate and manage the Commerce Bight Port.

Government alleges that the revocation was carried out because “PBL has failed to submit a development plan or to carry out any development works at the Port as required… PBL has failed to operate and manage the Port or to carry out the necessary dredging of the approach channel and the dock basin, as required… [and] PBL has failed to pay the lease rental to the Government of Belize.”

According to Gentle, the port—which has a 500-ft pier—can be an alternate location for the exportation of bananas, papaya, citrus and maybe even petroleum, which now have to be transported to the Big Creek port. Gentle said that Commerce Bight will cut 30 miles from the journey, saving fuel and time.

He told us that on Friday, Ports Commissioner Merlene Bailey-Martinez had gone to the site to do an inventory of the assets. Belize Port Authority will have to do a complete assessment of the port’s condition, in order to formulate a plan to finance the site’s development, the CEO added.

The former Musa administration privatized the ports at Commerce Bight and Belize City in 2002; however, there has been an ongoing dispute over the deal dating back almost six years.

The claimants had said in laying out several claims that Government had failed to issue to them a freehold title for Commerce Bight. Government has not taken steps for Port of Belize and Belize Ports Limited to legally manage and operate the Commerce Bight Port in Stann Creek, they also declared.

“All the grandiose development plans for the two Ports which were given as the reason for privatization are now no more than a dream,” said Prime Minister Dean Barrow, issuing a statement Friday.

He added that Government “will not be deterred by the challenges that may be encountered in the process and will not hesitate from taking decisive action, wherever necessary in the national interest.”

Luke Espat, owner of Port of Belize, has claimed damages and costs on allegations that the Government had breached its agreements with the investors.

After the change of administration, on March 19, 2008, the Government served notice on PBL that it would revoke its lease. PBL responded by seeking a court injunction, which the court granted. However, Espat’s bankers put the company into receivership in January 2012.

Meanwhile, the court injunction was discharged by the Supreme Court on July 20, 2012. This, Government said, has paved the way for the Minister to now revoke the PBL’s Commerce Bight lease and take possession of the port.

“This has become necessary due to the fact that there is an urgent need for the Port to be operable in order to meet the commercial needs of the country. In this regard, the Government will be aggressively seeking international funding to upgrade the Commerce Bight Port to international standards,” said the Government’s press release.

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