New infrastructure development will add vast amounts of value to Antigua and Barbuda’s economy and already desirable quality of life, says Eustace Lake, Minister of Works and Housing. The ambitious minister with significant international experience has big plans in the pipeline, saying he aims to make the island-nation feel ten times its size. Whether it be a new airport development in Barbuda, major road rehabilitation projects in Antigua or a sewerage system that reaches the ports in St. John’s, the Ministry has identified the country’s most strategic projects.
How has your personal professional background helped shape your current vision at the Ministry?
I started working out of college for business process management company, a small firm built by my father. At the time, they weren’t sure where they wanted to take the organisation but one of the things I learned real quick was to look for the best professionals. I worked hard to find good people and we saw the benefits come in. My business philosophy is all about hard work and being able to look at an organisation and find the best ways to do things.
My experience in the USA in the private sector has helped significantly. Working in that environment acclimatised me to different types of businesses and how they work. I worked in several companies including Citibank. I worked there for four years, becoming operations manager, and that helped me to gain a thorough understanding of business and how it works depending on what you are attempting to accomplish. I had 800 employees and I created a training department to help individuals learn and become more specialised.
You are working with a British grant of $20 million to enhance the country’s road systems. What is your strategy for effectively deploying those funds?
We are waiting to confirm some details but internally we have set up what we need. Our project coordinator will be the voice of the unit so the public understands what we are doing. We have one engineer assigned to the group, the ministry director and a company that will be doing the work. They have already come in and studied the road rehabilitation project, but we need a fully clear understanding of what needs to be done before we execute. The movement will start after understanding how much land we need to acquire. However, we have already chosen the two most significant projects through a feasibility study, which will improve traffic flows and enable tourism. For example, we see particular benefits in turning the airport road into a four-lane highway, but the challenge with that is that we need to spend $8 million outside of what we have from the UK.
What other foreseeable projects are coming up within the next couple of years that this ministry will carry out, and how much do you hope to secure from the UK Caribbean Infrastructure Fund (UKCIF)?
I don’t know if funding is going to be from the UK or elsewhere, but the biggest issue here when it comes to infrastructure is the roads. We are also looking to the Caribbean Development Bank for infrastructure financing. Another key project in the pipeline is the sewerage system in the city of St. John’s. I’ve already spoken to several key people to get it done, but it’s just a matter of us being able to say: “now is the time.” Our aim is to take the sewerage lines to the ports so we can help ships clear the sewage they have and move on.
Barbuda is like a blank board to be written on, so if you get it done right it will be phenomenal
Are you open to public-private partnerships with international firms?
I would absolutely consider working with a firm from overseas to get things done. It would be from a firm which takes an interest in infrastructure development and is able to get the project done. The finance is always a challenge, but if foreign investors take interest in the development and enable us to carry out all of our infrastructure development plans, we will literally have paradise on earth.
Tell me more about the “cruise masterplan” and the infrastructure that will go along with that?
We’re looking to build a fifth pier; we already have four built and we want another one to accommodate more ships and allow them to dock up. We have also done some dredging, which expands our capacity to accommodate large boats, and I believe we have already attracted one of the world’s biggest boats to our shores. And once we have that pinned down, the plan is for us to be able to dock the ships and provide the necessary shopping and tours, but again all of it comes back to having the necessary roads to make the experience as smooth as possible.
In December 2016 it was reported that the Prime Minister wished to welcome bids for an engineering firm to build a new international airport in Barbuda this year. What do you think a new airport will mean for Barbuda?
I remember back in 2010, before I was a minister, I had a dream of how Barbuda would be able to function. I remember telling the minister of Barbuda at the time that we have to create a hub for people to come in. So we talked about that, we talked about customs, about everything on the front-end to control the activity, and the role of government. But at that time, we didn’t have the money. Fortunately, however, we have some investors who are interested in Barbuda’s economy. Barbuda is like a blank board to be written on, so if you get it done right it will be phenomenal. It doesn’t matter who the government is or the agency in control; we have to put our best foot forward to manage it.
How does Antigua’s infrastructure, especially in relation to tourism, compare to that of other countries in the region?
Antigua is more developed than many neighbouring countries. We have a long history of development and the ministers who have been managing the island have been well trained and experienced in businesses.
Antigua is only 108 square miles but when I’ve finished, it should feel more like 1,000
Why would an international investor support Antigua and Barbuda’s infrastructure as opposed to investing in another island?
I believe there’s a sophistication that comes with Antigua and Barbuda. One of the reasons I got involved in the government is to make sure that it understands what we have to do to get things right; to not just continue with business as usual. And we have significantly improved the way things are done in recent years. Today the administration is more efficient for business and individuals, and the pleasant atmosphere that you get in this country is second to none. We are very small and we understand the contributions made by individuals trying to make the island better, so we have harnessed our relationship-developing skills. I’ve been fortunate to travel throughout my career and I’ve gotten a good idea of what is happening in the wider world, but Antigua is home and I’ve lived here 22 years. I love it here, especially the politeness and the ability to get business done quickly. The fact that we are looking to grow the island significantly is key. Antigua is only 108 square miles but when I’ve finished, it should feel more like 1,000.
What do you think the future has in store for Antigua and Barbuda post-Brexit? And how will the relationship with the UK evolve in this new era?
Increased cooperation would be good for us, as we could bring in engineering companies, technology, knowledge transfer, and so on. The uncertainty factor for us is financial. So, when we look at Brexit, we want to step back and say “when does it start and how can we benefit?” This is why I think CIU is extremely important for the exchange of currency and to keep our dollar strong. I can understand from a Caribbean perspective that the exchange rate is a concern, but, on the other hand, Brexit could help bring in more investors. And if so, they would notice that reaching the North and South American markets is much easier coming from the Caribbean. If we are looking at business, the synergies are clear: we understand the language easily, our population is extremely educated, we learn very fast and our education system is similar to the UK’s. But we are open globally, and are also working with the Chinese. In fact, many of our students are now studying in China. I believe that today this country and its people have the opportunity of a lifetime. The fact that we are willing to get educated, leave our comfort zone and transfer this knowledge to future generations gives us space for new industries to grow.
If Britain strengthens ties with the Commonwealth, it is an opportunity for them because, at the end of the day, all of us were a colony of some sort. And we are accustomed to working with the British so the change wouldn’t be radical – just a case of making the relationship stronger to move forward. Within that, Antigua and Barbuda also provides great opportunities. We are connected to the world, we are connected to China, India, the UK, America and Canada; so wherever it is you want to go, you can start here. And you can count on the ministry to help attract more businesses and create more opportunities. That’s why the infrastructure development programme is underway.