PHILIPSBURG–Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication (TEATT) Minister Stuart Johnson and Finance Minister Perry Geerlings did not seem to be on the same page when it came to the issue of United States (US) pre-clearance in the restoration of Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) during the press briefing at the Government Administration Building on Wednesday.
When Johnson was asked for a comment on allegations that a press release from the Cabinet of the TEATT Ministry contained misleading information, Johnson said that as government shareholder representative, “it has been permissible, continues to be permissible, for any shareholder representative to attend a presentation.”
This press release outlined a presentation that JPF Corporate Financing made to PJIA’s management and supervisory boards, Vida Nova Pension Fund and Bank, and Johnson as government shareholder representative. In the presentation, Vida Nova offered to repay existing bond holders and rebuild PJIA’s terminal building, including a United States (US) pre-clearance facility.
Johnson said the presentation was arranged by the board PJIA’s holding company. “During the presentation … several other historical facts were outlined, part of that is the debt financing of the harbour, was financed through that medium [JPF Corporate Financing – Ed.], also for the hospital … was also arranged similarly.
“As shareholder representative and as government, it is the responsibility to speak to anyone and listen to any presentation,” Johnson said.
“All of us can remember and by extension, I mean the people of St. Maarten, what page 95 of the governing programme speaks of.
“… on that particular page, is the finalisation and establishment of US pre-clearance. Under that also makes mention of the maintenance of the airport as a hub function. That continues to be the only priority that I have as the minister in charge of TEATT.
“… As government we continue to look at the overall restoration of the airport inclusive of the agreement signed, which is the governing programme of [having – Ed.] US pre-clearance being within that facility. That is the only wish and desire I continue to see for this country,” Johnson said.
Following Johnson’s remarks, Geerlings said the Council of Ministers, PJIA’s boards and Parliament took a decision on “the trajectory that we are going to go with the financing of the reconstruction of the airport.
“We really need to respect decisions that the country is taking. For me personally, that is the issue, as a council of Ministers you take a decision, the same holding board took a decision … But here now you kind of organise a presentation for alternative financing.
“I, who was busy with the financing for this project at the airport, was not aware [of this presentation – Ed.] at all. Let’s talk about that. So, how professional are you then as a holding board? And what is the alternative?” he said.
Regarding pre-clearance, Geerlings said it is what the government wants and signed off on, “but pre-clearance has its place in the development.”
He said pre-clearance “comes with a hefty price tag.
“And if you look at the financial predicament of the airport, then one should ask the question, ‘When and where do you fit the pre-clearance in that it is financially sustainable?’”
“Reference was just made to the harbour. Yes, the harbour was financed in this way by this arranger [JPF Corporate Financing], but what did it do? That whole financing cost our products in the supermarkets, the prices, to go up.
“And people should realise that you can attract $500 million and then you are going to pay it back in two or three generations, but it will come with a price. Prices in stores will go up, you might raise the fees at the airport and tourists might shy away.
“Those are the things that this Council of Ministers are looking at to ensure that we take the right decision when we move on [pre-clearance].
“Now, we have plans that in the architectural plans that are being drawn up as we speak that US pre-clearance will be part of that as well. Because you rather put it in now then rather when the time comes you are going to implement it, it is already there.
“In the meantime, the Americans also said, while we are constructing the airport, the talks will continue about US pre-clearance [and] on the treaty we need to sign that is almost finalised. We are talking about possible exemptions on the 80-plus US citizens that will be working in our territories.
“All these things take time. You are talking about a treaty here. And this government never said … that US pre-clearance is not a priority. But you have to plan it in a responsible way so that it doesn’t financially backfire on the country and people of St. Maarten,” said Geerlings.
Stuart then spoke about the benefits of pre-clearance, saying it will assist promote St. Maarten as a hub and allow PJIA to return to 2016 passenger numbers, “or higher,” by 2023. He said a PJIA-commissioned study undertaken by an international Dutch firm corrobated this information.
He also said it will create additional airlines flying to St. Maarten because flights can be registered as domestic flights when they land in the US. “Airlines, such as SouthWest, clearly indicated that they would come to St. Maarten with US pre-clearance,” he said, adding that this was one of many airlines that said this.
Johnson also emphasised the economic benefits of pre-clearance as additional airlines will create additional jobs and resident US custom agents would require housing and food, which circulates money into St. Maarten’s economy.
“I want to be very clear. I will continue to champion for the quick restoration for the Princess Juliana International Airport, US pre-clearance included, and the benefits it has economically for the people of St. Maarten … time is money,” concluded Johnson.