Belief in Belize
By Paul Scott Abbott
While aiming not to compromise its beloved “go-slow” culture, Central America’s least-populous country is creatively forging ahead with an infrastructure initiative that should furnish a socioeconomic lift – and spur project cargo opportunities.
“The relaxed way we go about engaging people in our day-to-day is definitely a benefit, because people immediately fall in love with the country,” said Christy Mastry, general manager of Belize Infrastructure Ltd. BIL was formed in 2013 by the Belizean government, with US$31.25 million in initial federal funding, to streamline design and execution of large capital projects.
“We do need to maybe put a little more effort into how we expedite progress once we’ve committed to it,” Mastry continued. “We have to be cognizant about delivery, but not at the expense of changing our personality, because that’s what everyone loves. That is the trick.”
In late 2015, BIL became involved in creation of a public-private partnership, or P3, unit for Belize, and has been working closely with the Belize Ministry of Trade and Investment and the Belize Trade and Investment Development Service (Beltraide), as well as the World Bank and Caribbean Development Bank, in developing the first formal P3 policy for the country of fewer than 400,000 people. Mastry said that policy should be completed by the end of 2018.
“I think that we don’t necessarily have to do everything all at once,” said Mastry, an architect by training, who, prior to taking the BIL helm in 2014, served five years as project director for the Belize Ministry of Tourism’s Sustainable Tourism Program, funded by a US$15 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank.
It is essential, Mastry said, to identify and prioritize potential projects, advancing those that reach across multiple sectors “where you’re getting more bang for your buck.
“We do need to take a step back and realize where we should prioritize,” she said. “The only thing we need to do is, once we do prioritize a project, we have to make sure the government is working professionally, that public servants sitting in administrative capacities treat that project as a priority. And it can be very relaxed in how they talk, but, when it comes to getting a permit done, for example, we have to be very timely about that.”
That can be challenging in a former British colony that takes pride in being laidback but is saddled on its mainland and its offshore islands, or cayes, with what is widely regarded as some of the most inadequate infrastructure in Central America.
Whereas Spanish, Belizean Creole and several other languages are spoken, Belize is the only Latin American country where English is the official language. The country was still known as British Honduras for nearly a decade after granted self-government in 1964. Belize officially adopted its current name in 1973 and was granted independence in 1981.
History of the country, occupying 8,800 square miles perched on the Caribbean Sea just south of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, dates back to Mayan civilization. In the 18th century, the main inbound cargo consisted of captive Africans, arriving crammed like sardines in slave ships, who harvested rich forests of logwood and mahogany, which became chief exports.
Belize dollars are conveniently pegged to the U.S. dollar at an exchange rate of 2 to 1, a factor in attracting not just U.S. tourists but also money launderers and drug traffickers, as well as concomitant corruption.
But leaders such as Mastry are committed to emphasizing positives as they focus on long-range planning.
“We are looking to create a clear vision forward, with long-term spending, not just the annual budget or five-year budget, but a 30-year framework,” Mastry said. “We have to start to really focus on our citizens and social upliftment, and to look at more creative ways on the funding.”
BIL’s biggest accomplishment to date, according to Mastry, is the recently finished US$30 million Belize Civic Center. The multipurpose venue in Belize City, being operated under a revenue-sharing P3, is able to accommodate as many as 6,000 people for conventions, concerts and sporting events. Notably, the center’s entire steel frame, made by leading United Kingdom structural engineering firm John Reid & Sons Ltd., was brought via ship to Belize from England, and other big components, such as bleacher seating, came from China.
Future BIL plans include advancement of a master plan for developing the Lake Independence area of Belize City, a 50-acre development inclusive of US$15 million to US$30 million of government buildings, recreational space, P3 commercial opportunities and a US$5 million to US$6 million national bus terminal. The bus terminal would be run under a P3 agreement, with funding via user fees, but would require public legislative change and transportation reform, including consolidation of bus lines and routes.
Current major infrastructure project priorities for Belize include development of a better highway linking the Western Highway, from a point between coastal Belize City and the inland capital of Belmopan, with the Southern Highway. Not only would it reduce transit times for southbound tourists, but, more importantly, it would enhance access to the Big Creek Port, about 110 miles south of Belize City. The highway project, with a price tag of between US$30 million and US$40 million, is being underwritten by British High Commission grant funding, with hopes for completion by 2020. Discussions are afoot for making it a toll road, with assessments based on number of vehicle axles.
The privately operated Big Creek Port is undergoing an expansion, including US$10 million to US$12 million of dredging to a 36-foot depth, slated for completion by the end of 2018. The port, second in significance in the country only to the Port of Belize in Belize City, is a hub for exports of citrus, bananas, sugar and oil.
Another longtime – but as-yet-unfulfilled – priority is development of on-shore berthing for cruise ships, from which passengers are transferred via tender boats to Belize City for shore excursions. Private investment is actively being sought.
The Belize Ministry of Works in late 2015 completed a bridge over Haulover Creek west-northwest of Belize City that allows vehicular traffic from Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport and other points to the north to travel to Belmopan and other inland destinations without a need to navigate Belize City. The primary downtown connection over Haulover Creek between Belize City’s north side and its crime-ridden south side continues to be a nearly century-old, manually operated swing bridge.
Another roadway project under way entails resurfacing of the primary highway between the airport and Belize City.
In addition to international financing entities, investors in Belize infrastructure have come from Taiwan and South Korea, according to Mastry.
Whereas much of the steel, cement and other building material used in Belize projects affordably is transported via trucks from Guatemala and Mexico, “there is room for growth for sure” in project cargoes coming via ships, she said.
A professional journalist for nearly 50 years, U.S.-based Paul Scott Abbott has focused on transportation topics since the late 1980s.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
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