Saving City Hall

Cultural policy and more particularly the preservation of the nation’s material heritage was one area which none of the political parties had much to say about prior to the election, and with all that is going on in the political field currently they certainly have not applied their minds to the matter since. One waits to see whether Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh will give any acknowledgement to the issue in the Budget, although one holds out very little hope that he will; like most of his colleagues he has evinced little interest in such matters. In fact, the record of the government is abysmal in this department (not, mind you, that that of its predecessor was any better), and the stain which above all others disfigures its image is the destruction of the old New Amsterdam hospital by vandals. That Dr Ramsammy, who was Minister of Health at the time, could issue such placatory statements intended to allay public anxieties about the survival of the structure, while all the time it was being dismantled board by board, speaks volumes about his ingrained philistinism and that of the administration he served.

What little remained of the New Amsterdam Hospital has now crumbled into dust, but there is another major heritage building, this time in Georgetown, which the government should spare no effort to save. The edifice in question is, of course, City Hall, that remarkable fairy castle-like creation of Father Scoles, completed in 1889 during the capital’s great era of public building. The impediment in this case is that the occupants of City Hall are anathema to the government, and it remains to be seen whether the administration can demonstrate that in the national interest it can rise above its distaste for the Mayor & City Council and separate heritage from politics.

To his credit, former President Bharrat Jagdeo granted $20 million prior to the election for work on the building to begin, but it is a drop in the ocean. In 2010, the Mayor estimated the cost of rehabilitation at approximately $400 million. In February of this year Deputy Mayor (ag) Patricia Chase-Green told this newspaper that $5 million of the $20 million subvention had been disbursed and was being used to replace the windows in the upper storey. The City Engineer, she said, was expected to submit a proposal for the expenditure of the other $15 million, and to bring it to the Council. As of February 19, this had not been done, so no money had been released. Her statements suggested that these funds were destined to be expended on the roof which was leaking badly, and certainly if that is not attended to soon, it will cause the remainder of the building to deteriorate even more quickly than otherwise would be the case.

At this point it is not clear whether the City Engineer has in fact presented his proposal. If he hasn’t, then since he is technically answerable to the Minister of Local Government, the latter should summon him to his office forthwith, impress on him the urgency of the matter and give him a deadline to produce the plan. Enough time has been wasted already, and since this is a public project which will presumably have to go to tender, the M&CC can ill afford further delays.

As said above, the sum of $20 million simply allows a holding operation. As for the remainder of what is required, Mayor Green’s original proposal some two years ago was for an appeal to citizens, businessmen and expatriate Guyanese. It was then Director of Culture Dr James Rose who pointed out the impracticability of this scheme, something which the Mayor subsequently conceded. Dr Rose was quoted by Stabroek News as saying, “Our best bet would be to get a restoration plan, work out costing and a realistic schedule to go to the funding agencies.”

This would certainly seem to be the way to go, but two years and further disrepair later has anything happened? Not as far as anyone can tell. So what is the government waiting for? Surely it can budget for funds for a consultant to draft a restoration plan and assist in the costing exercise so the international agencies could be approached? In fact, the ball is firmly in its court; the M&CC is not in a position to hire a consultant and certainly cannot approach funding agencies on its own account.

In previous times the administration had complained about the city council’s handling of funds, but that hardly needs to be an issue if it monitors disbursement itself. And in fact last year in the case of the $20 million that is exactly what it arranged to do. In November then Minister of Local government Norman Whittaker asked Chairman of the Implementation Committee of the M&CC Keith Burrowes to manage the disbursement of the money and review any payment. “Once I’m dealing with overlooking this project, they will have no problems,” Mr Burrowes told this newspaper at the time.

The voice of the Minister of Culture has not been heard on the subject of saving City Hall for posterity, but one can only hope that he and Minister of Local Government Ganga Persaud are seized of the urgency of this matter, and see fit to approach cabinet for agreement on securing the services of an expert in the field in the first instance. This is surely something on which all political parties can agree, no matter what other dramas are going on in Parliament. Before anything will happen, however, all the parties – including especially the two ministers mentioned – must be seized both of the importance of this project and of its urgency.

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