Business

Growing Up

The skipper didn’t mince words as he gently guided his supersleek tour boat into the Leeward Marina dock. “This is the Wild West down here. Be careful what you pay!”

John Esper, a former Canadian real estate agent, now running an operation he calls Caicos Ferry in a land he speaks of as paradise, was referring to a real estate market that has seen prices double and even triple in the past year on the small out-island of North Caicos, where he and his family make their home. But Esper qualifies his statement. Supply and demand for land are the real wild cards in this market.

Driven by tourism and offshore financial services, the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) economy has been exploding and prices are often, literally, whatever the market will bear. A year ago on North Caicos, an acre of prime recreational land sold for $50,000. Now it’s about $110,000.
That rapid appreciation may seem unorthodox to a professional realtor from Canada, where comparison pricing is the logical way to evaluate a property. Here just less than a year, he’s looking at the situation with a still-fresh perspective.

In this subtropical string of islands and cays known as Turks & Caicos, price is often no object. North Americans and Europeans succumb to the combination of sunshine, turquoise seas, quiet beaches and relatively undeveloped tourist trade.

You find your dream here . . . and then pay whatever it takes.

The country, a British overseas territory, saw economic growth rise by an estimated 10% during 2000 and predictions of 8 to 10% are on the books for 2001. That compares to the U.S., Canada and Europe, where 5% growth in gross domestic product is considered phenomenal.
“It is considered the fastest growing country in the Caribbean area,” says Colin Heartwell, chief executive officer of TCInvest, an investment development agency dedicated to promoting “judiciously” the growth of TCI.

Growth, as measured by gross domestic product in the past decade, has ranged from 5 to 17% annually, leaving the government and many others, scrambling to keep pace.

The rapidly escalating influx of money into the Islands has left even veteran real estate professional Phillip Misick, managing director of Prestigious Properties Ltd., the country’s largest real estate firm, slightly taken aback, though not complaining. His agents might have sold two properties per month 13 years ago when he began his career. Today, an agent can move three to five sales a week. He comments, “Especially in the past three years, there has been a tremendous amount of growth. With the boom in the U.S., people are feeling their wealth. They felt their market investments were safe and wanted another investment.”

Condos on Grace Bay Beach on the fastest growing island in the chain, Providenciales, range from US$150,000 to $1 million or more.
Interestingly, most buyers pay cash for their real estate, Misick says. If not, there are several banks and private mortgage lenders on the island happy to assist with financing. “People want to come here to escape the cold winter storms,” he says.

And they’ll pay for that pleasure, even as the price of admission keeps going up. Beachfront property on the once-bucolic Providenciales that would have sold for $50,000 an acre 10 years ago is now worth about $1.4 million–if you can find a seller.

Nonetheless, Misick worries that prices of homes may be outstripping the island’s infrastructure–the ability to service roads, manage waste and extend power, water and other services that keep those properties habitable and life comfortable.

Some fear the Turks & Caicos will follow in the path of other Caribbean islands such as Grand Cayman and the Bahamas, which some say grew too fast, too quickly, on tourism money and speculation . . . only to be transformed from palm trees and beachfront serenity into concrete jungles and traffic nightmares.

The Caribbean Development Bank (CDB) in its most recent report on the economy of the area noted that both Grand Cayman and the Bahamas have hit a peak–the bubble burst–and demand for residential and commercial properties by outsiders has begun to decline. In Barbados, the CDB added, the government had deliberately delayed public sector projects, in turn cooling the real estate market before it spiraled out of control.

Offsetting major inflation, the CDB in its 1999 report notes that the banking industry on TCI has been conservative in its lending policies, thus preventing huge, highly leveraged real estate deals blowing prices sky-high.

TCI tourism operates mainly on the bustling island of Providenciales and generates about 45% of the country’s gross domestic product, the CDB reports. It’s by far the biggest industry sector on the island, and nothing less than a full-blown recession in North America appears set to slow it down. Tourism rose 9.1% to 121,000 visitors in 1999 and by a whopping 25% to 151,370 by 2000.

That sector is followed by the construction industry (8 to 12% growth annually) and financial services. There is virtually no manufacturing here.

Heartwell admits that growth has been spectacular, often leaving the government bewildered as to where it has to catch up next. But the tourism cachet of TCI is as a high-value, low-volume destination which keeps numbers of visitors reasonable, yet still brings in plenty of cash per tourist. “People like to come here because it’s not overdeveloped and they want to take advantage of a quiet island, rather than some place like Daytona Beach,” Heartwell says. “They want it to feel like the Caribbean of 10 years ago.”

The government, looking at the potential for more tourism revenue to offset its no-income-tax policy, is aware of the dangers of overdevelopment, Heartwell feels. It has watched as the local population on Providenciales grew from less than 1,000 people 10 years ago to an estimated 15,000++ today. Throw in another 7,500 tourists per week during the vacation season and the demand for services is going to add up pretty rapidly.

Yet for tourists, expatriates and others with the cash, life can be easy in the Islands. Canadian resident Ellen Mitchell lived in a luxury oceanfront condominium on Providenciales for several years before returning to Canada. “It was secluded and quiet and I used to love the drive alongside the ocean down to the golf club,” she recalls.

Prices, in U.S. dollars, slashed the value of Mitchell’s Canadian-earned dollars by about 1/3 after currency exchange, hiking the price of everyday items like groceries substantially higher than she was used to at home. But the sunshine, family get-togethers and climate made it all worthwhile–until she began to miss her children.

Living in a dream condo in paradise may have been affordable, but a couple of children at a time down for holidays, coupled with frequent visits home to Canada became increasingly uneconomical. She eventually sold and moved home again, but treasures her memories of TCI. “I really loved the place,” she states.

Now that this one among the few remaining gems (not overrun with tourists) in the West Indies has been “discovered,” there isn’t much the government can do to immediately regulate, restrict or contain growth, suggests Joseph Connolly, managing director of PricewaterhouseCoopers on TCI. “The concept that an economy is growing too fast seems to imply the government can take their foot off the accelerator or touch the brakes to line the economy up to the right speed.”

“The truth is that when government tries to influence the economy, it is like turning the wheel on a massive oceanliner. It takes two miles to turn, and by the time the turn is made, the obstacle it was seeking to avoid has long gone and the ship is sometimes facing the wrong way . . .”

Connolly suggests the country can identify what its long-term economic point of equilibrium should be . . . but it is the world economy that will determine how long and what route it takes to reach that target.
Bearing in mind the current stock market slump, Connolly and PricewaterhouseCoopers are looking for a slower rate of growth in development in 2002. Connolly is suggesting a very slight cooling off in the overall economy to 15% this year (from 16% the previous year), based on National Insurance collections. That’s higher than GDP growth, but reflects the rising rate of wages.

Labour which has been “imported” into the country to build the resorts and services has put upward pressure on rental and purchase accommodation on Providenciales, Connolly adds. “It may also put pressure on the social services such as health and education, which may eventually require additional funding paid for out of increased government revenue . . . which would raise the cost of living in the future.”

But while housing costs may be escalating faster than in conventional markets, other indicators of inflation–or the cost of living–are generally holding steady, he notes.

Ironically, the influx of cash into the country has had the effect of encouraging competition in several areas, leading to some price cuts. That provides choice for consumers and also more reasonable pricing for commodities such as food and household items, as businesses try to woo customers with lower prices than their competitor across the street.

It’s not unusual for Islanders, or “Belongers” as they’re known, to work two or even three jobs to make ends meet. Tourism, as the major employer, doesn’t always pay top wages and multiple, if part-time, jobs are often necessary to pay the rent, buy groceries and support a family.
Inflation, much like the overall economic growth of TCI, pretty closely matches the U.S. lead. Since about 95% of all goods are imported, higher prices for cabbage in Delaware translate into the same price increase down here.

The Islands themselves manufactures little in the way of hard goods, but do boast the world’s only conch farm on Providenciales and a fishing fleet in South Caicos. Both conch and lobster harvests, however, are affected by their abundance and also global quotas, which may affect exports.

Projects on the horizon include a large port for tourist cruise ships on East Caicos, bound to escalate the number of visitors to the Islands if it materializes. Also possible is a causeway linking Middle and North Caicos. After Providenciales, North Caicos is expected to be the next island to feel the influx of tourism and development dollars, and the transportation of that to sparsely inhabited Middle Caicos is the logical next step.

As well, the causeway would provide better access to schools, medical facilities and other social supports for residents on both islands, government officials say. Imbalances among the string of islands in providing services for all have long been a concern, and Providenciales’ increasing domination of the tourist and economic sector has raised those concerns again.

Delton Jones, chief economist in the Ministry of Finance, has documented TCI’s past decade, as fishing declined as an economic factor and tourism kicked into high gear. He would like to see a fishing industry revived and the government has endorsed mariculture–fish farming–as a highly desirable investment area.

Jones, looking at the next decade, suggests several areas must be studied if this pattern of growth is to continue without stumbling: “The even spread of growth on islands other than Providenciales, fine-tuned labour and immigration policies, more entrepreneurial opportunities for native Belongers and, a big one, sustainable government income to finance development programs.”

To date, Jones says, the government has initiated consultations with the private sector and participation in the provision of services and infrastructure, promotion of small enterprise development projects and review of the education system in TCI. It’s a big task for a country which boasts a population smaller than most small cities (25,000 estimated).

Meanwhile, as Esper bounces across the waves carrying suntanned tourists to different destinations, he can only wonder at how a country whose airport was just recently expanded to accommodate major airlines is already bursting at the seams. “Suddenly 17 planes a week became 42 planes a week or something,” he muses.

IGA: Setting The Standard For Retail

Story & Photos by Anthony Taylor

Perhaps the most well known and most visited building on Providenciales is that of the IGA Supermarket on Leeward Highway. The 26,000 sq. ft. store has been rescued from receivership and transformed over the last 2 1/2 years from an almost-bare shelved building into a thriving supermarket operation.

“We’ve grown substantially these last couple of years,” says General Manager Michael Phillips. “We now carry around 27,000 different products and have also increased our inventory to around the $1 million mark.”

They’ve had to, because with thousands of customers each week the demand for everything from the mundane to the exotic has grown dramatically. “A supermarket is not something that can be changed overnight,” says Phillips, “it’s got to be a gradual process of finding out what customers want and is, to some extent, a case of trial and error. As well as the right products, customers want to shop in a clean and attractive environment with good customer service, and the value combination of price and quality. We’ve spent a lot of time improving our service and customer facilities,” he says.

The number of staff the IGA employs has also grown considerably, from around 20 when they took over in October 1998 to just over 60 today, over 90% of which are native Turks & Caicos Islanders.

As any business owner/manager will tell, having the right staff is critical to the success of the business and Phillips is delighted with the team at the IGA. “Considering most of them were rookies when it came to the grocery business, to see how well they gelled together and what a good job they do is very impressive,” he says. In all, Belongers hold eight managerial jobs in the IGA with several others in key positions, such as Mauvette Williams in accounts and Trish Capron in costings.

Because of the size of the store it is broken down into different departments. Each department has its own manager who is in charge of its efficient operation–everything from product ordering to layout. The list of Belonger managers is long, but one that Phillips is keen to promote: Uroy Williams, produce manager; Denise Hinson, bakery manager; Sharon Swaby, deli manager; Delroy Foster, meat department manager; Merlin Cox, dairy manager; Frank Forbes, assistant store manager; Arlene Hall, front end and senior store manager and Edith Cox, the new financial director of the entire store. The managers are able to call on the experience of Jesus Antolinez, a supermarket professional who joined the team a year ago and Leigh Proctor, who has been with IGA almost since day one.

The growing influence of the IGA is also being felt in many local restaurants as Matt Neff, deputy store director, and his team in the wholesale department have expanded this side of the operation significantly over the last few months. “They have done a great job and are now supplying the majority of restaurants with the same high quality products that can be found in the store,” adds Phillips.

With such rapid growth, it’s fair to assume that the IGA’s influence on the Islands is set to getting stronger.

Power For Progress

Story & Photos by Kathy Borsuk

As economic growth in the Turks & Caicos Islands–particularly the most-developed island of Providenciales–spirals upwards in double-digit figures, so too does the demand for the electricity that powers everything from air conditioners to VCRs. As I learned in a recent interview with Ron Kidd, General Manager of Provo Power Company (PPC Limited), not only has the utility ensured that power supply stays well ahead of demand, but they have actually decreased rates, while maintaining an outstanding level of custoemr service and corporate responsibility.

OUT-PACING DEMAND
Kidd shakes his head as he describes the remarkable rate of growth in electrical consumption on Providenciales, “In a little more than three years, the demand for electricity has doubled, so that our average daily peak load is currently around 11,000 kilowatts. We fully expect it to double again in the next three years. For the utilities, it’s a balancing act to purchase and install the necessary equipment at the right time, before the demand appears, but not too early, to avoid putting pressure on rates.”

That’s because the installed cost of one 6,000 horsepower diesel generator runs a hefty $4 million or so. There are currently seven operating at the Providenciales Generating Station (eight by the end of the year), along with one mobile unit. They provide electrical energy to Providenciales as well as Pine Cay and North and Middle Caicos via submarine cable. (Each island also has a standby generating station.) Sister company Atlantic Equipment and Power (Turks and Caicos) Limited (AEP) serves South Caicos from its own generating station there.

To keep up with demand, Kidd says, PPC must acquire and place a new generator just about every two years and is expected to spend at least $29 million over the next five years on infrastructure. “A prudent utility plans on being able to meet the peak load with the two largest generators out of service, since diesel generators routinely need maintenance and it’s possible that a large machine will break down while another is being serviced. By keeping this buffer capacity, our customers don’t experience frequent and prolonged outages.” Future machines are expected to be 10,000 horsepower or greater.

Kidd explains that the new generators will be installed in individual enclosures specially designed to reduce sound. The first new unit, expected to be operational by late 2002, should make a noticeable difference in nighttime sound from the power station. As more such units are brought into service, noise from the plant will steadily diminish. Meanwhile, an interim sound-reduction experiment, involving enclosing the sides of the existing power house and forcing air up through the roof, will soon be tested.

Fueling the massive engines that create the mechanical power that is translated by generators to electrical energy is diesel fuel–presently about 13,000 to 14,000 gallons daily! PPC’s fuel supply originates in Curacao and travels by sea to Nassau, where it is loaded into shallow draft vessels which journey on to Providenciales’ South Dock for off-loading to tanker trucks. The new fuel farm northeast of the generating station will provide 120,000 gallons of storage and cut filling time by about 40 minutes per truck. And, Kidd assures, “During hurricane season, great attention is paid to keeping the supply topped up.”

As the power load grows, it also becomes necessary to increase the number and/or size of the distribution circuits. Future plans include both. Kidd explains, “PPC is taking advantage of the reconstruction of Leeward Highway to install underground ducts for future electric circuits. This will allow the overhead lines to be de-energized one at a time so that existing wire can be replaced with wire of a much bigger diameter. The larger wire will carry more power and increasing operating flexibility. We will also add a distribution circuit in the Grace Bay area.”

Another method of coping with the increased load is to introduce higher voltage circuits (34.5 kV vs. the existing 12.47 kV). A higher voltage means that more power can be delivered along the same system to locations where it is most needed. Then, at local substations, an assembly of transformers and circuit breakers reduce the voltage and distribute power in the immediate vicinity.

DROPPING RATES
In light of this rapid expansion, it seems amazing that PPC has been able to cut rates dramatically. In October, 2000, rates for residential and commercial customers dropped from 35 cents per kWh to 28 and 29 cents per kWh, respectively. Unfortunately, Kidd bemoans, this decrease was masked by an increased fuel surcharge, driven by steadily rising international oil prices. “The end result was that the average bill stayed about the same. That’s why our customers haven’t seen the drastic price increases that have plagued North Americans.”

Kidd attributes the rate drop to economies of scale. “When PPC started in 1982, there was little concentration of population. As a result, many miles of lines had to be provided to serve relatively few customers. This made it very costly to operate the system and rates were correspondingly high. Over the last four years, the lines began seeing more use, the system became more efficient and economies of scale began to appear.”

Although both PPC and AEP are privately held companies, they are regulated by the TCI government. At the end of each year, the companies file extensive financial reports. Government scrutinizes these reports, often with the assistance of offshore consultants, and decisions are made on rate changes. Any income greater than that allowed to the companies is returned to the consumer in the form of a rate reduction.
North, South and Middle Caicos have not seen the development experienced by Providenciales and PPC/AEP shareholders have yet to see a return on their investment in those islands. Until the end of 2000, the TCI Government subsidized the operations on North and Middle Caicos and continues to subsidize South Caicos.

KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON
As an eight-year resident of the Islands, I complimented Kidd on the consistently reliable service I’ve personally experienced. In spite of high winds, lightning storms, car/pole collisions, parrots nests and the corrosive effects of salty air, I cannot ever remember lacking power for more than two hours. Kidd confirmed that PPC’s service stands above similar island nations and that providing excellent service is a source of pride for all 65+ employees, with everyone–from linemen to office staff–playing an important role.

Staff training, ensuring that proper tools and equipment are provided and diligent use of safety measures all contribute to PPC reliability, Kidd explains. “Just recently, a number of our linemen earned certificates from the Electric Utilities Safety Association (EUSA) of Ontario confirming their status as fully qualified Journeymen. This year, we’ll also initiate a new linesman apprenticeship program, as well as introductory training for the meter mechanic and substation electrician careers. Our apprenticeship programs are typically four to five years long and are a mixture of academics and hands-on training.”

The result is that staff can respond quickly and effectively to all power restoration and repair situations. Kidd says, “We have linemen on-call 24 hours a day and quick and accurate assessment of a situation is second nature to them. We even sent three of our ‘Power Pros’ to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Floyd back in 1999 to help stabilize and restore their power and repair equipment. We’re also very proud that late last year our mechanical staff conducted major overhauls on two of our main generator sets.”

PPC offers popular “electrical awareness” training programs to schools, construction groups and community groups. For new building construction, they provide an inspection service prior to site energization.

Customers appreciate the new, more convenient payment office on the first floor of Town Centre Mall. This was done in conjunction with a complete reorganization of PPC’s business system to improve efficiency, flexibility and customer service.

CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY
“As the Islands’ major utilities,” Kidd declares, “PPC/AEP feel a strong corporate responsibility to assist in the TCI’s ongoing development.” With this in mind, the company has in place a number of programs to protect and improve the quality of life for its current and future consumers.

Both the new fuel farm and generating station expansion were constructed to high engineering and environmental standards, thanks to the team of J. Kaehne and Associates, a consulting engineering firm specializing in generating station design, and John Redmond Associates, a local, highly respected architectural firm. In fact, the new facility promises to be a model for other Caribbean nations. For instance, a large trench collects refuse and waste oil from around the plant. When it rains, the refuse drains into an oil/water separator (rather than Leeward Highway). The waste oil is then burned in a state-of-the-art incinerator that meets all North American air quality considerations.

Another step into the future is the use of an electronic digitizing board which allows PPC’s paper “blueprints” of the country’s extensive power grid to be computerized. As a result, it will be possible to readily update system changes and provide fresh copies of the information to people in the field at a moment’s notice. The data is complemented by a program allowing the location of every pole (over 4,000!) and transformer to be identified using satellite global positioning, essentially pinpointing its location for easy access.

At the same time, PPC supports a variety of charitable causes throughout the Islands, particularly those relating to children, education and the environment. Kidd says, “As a public utility, we recognize the absolute importance of all of us working together towards positive progress in the Turks & Caicos Islands.”

Grand Turk Synergy

Story & Photos by Kathy Borsuk

SYNERGY: The interaction of two or more forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.

“I’m a firm believer in the power of synergy,” states Paul Day, managing director of Grand Turk-based Columbus Foods Ltd., “especially as it relates to the balances of trade.” Paul, and his brother, Seamus, are laying the groundwork–or more appropriately, “seawork”–to put principle into practice with a series of cooperative ventures that could both vitalize the nation’s capital, Grand Turk, and benefit the entire Turks & Caicos Islands.

As reported in the Spring, 2000 issue of Times of the Islands, Columbus Foods’ $3+ million rice mill on Grand Turk was just the type of development government was seeking to help diversify the economy and spread investment beyond Providenciales. At its peak in 1996, 10,000 metric tons of rice were processed through the plant and exported to European Union (EU) countries, adding an estimated $1+ million to Grand Turk’s economy. Unfortunately, soon afterwards import quotas were established and the amount of rice that could be exported by TCI was so low that processing became unprofitable. As a result, the mill temporarily closed.

Undaunted, in mid-1999 Day petitioned for a derogation which would allow TCI to bypass the quota system. At the same time, Columbus Foods worked to develop the regional Caribbean market for its high-quality products and Day looked for other opportunities that would utilize existing assets.

Persistence paid off for the burly Brit. Thanks to constant lobbying and assistance from TCI’s Chief Minister Derek Taylor and Governor Mervyn Jones, the European Commission recently granted the “least developed Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs)” of EU member-states license to export 10,000 tons (and potentially more) of processed rice into EU countries annually, commencing in January, 2002 and continuing for at least six years. This move, combined with ongoing large shipments of rice to Haiti and other regional countries and animal feed product to the UK, provide a solid basis for long-term development and, as Day proclaims, “By next year, we’re going to be very, very busy.”

Once again, Grand Turk will become the country’s largest importer (of raw “cargo” rice) and largest exporter (of processed rice). In fact, Grand Turk’s deep water port will be thoroughly occupied, with more containers turning around in one week than in the entire previous year! Day expects to gradually increase the number of staff back to the levels they were when the plant was operating at its zenith: 64 people, running 24 hours, 7 days a week.

At the same time, Grand Turk native Herbert Adams, operations manager, will assume full responsibility for day-to-day plant management. Administration & Marketing Manager Alice Simons will continue to handle sales and accounts, while she also works to expand their Caribbean market. Both have been with Columbus Foods since the mill’s inception and are undaunted by the challenges ahead.

Meanwhile, Day will be spending much of his time in Indonesia. Via a 1999 invitation to serve as a consultant there, Day netted Columbus Foods the rights to modernize the vast Indonesian rice industry, including designing, building and managing six, $26 million, 1/2 million ton capacity rice processing complexes. How will this benefit TCI? The synergy here is that Day plans to use the Grand Turk mill as a training school for Indonesian mill workers.

But Day’s idea of synergy stretches far beyond rice. Using the shipping routes and volume demanded by the rice mill (boats coming in from Guyana and Surinam and traveling out to western Europe), he sees Grand Turk as a hub through which goods can move and value can be added. For instance, he hopes to expand the importation of tropical produce, hardwood and other products produced in Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica for wholesale in the TCI. Already, durable Guyanese hardwood lines Grand Turk floors and roofs and Day envisions a small furniture factory here that could produce pieces for export. Once on-line, Seamus says, “We’d also like to set up an annex for vocational training at the high school.”

Fish are a natural export and the Day brothers recently acquired the assets of Deep Water Seafoods, a fish processing business on Grand Turk that was built but never operational. Seamus explains, “We now have the equipment, including boats, to catch and process fish to supply both the local and Miami wholesale markets. We’re in discussions with TCI fisheries officials to develop scale fish quotas for the country’s territorial waters. We have also reached an agreement to purchase the unprocessed catch of companies fishing in the mid-Atlantic. We expect this will create a number of local jobs and we anticipate using part of the facility as a fisheries training school.”

Synergies exist here as well, says Paul. “We’ll be able to increase the number of cargo planes coming to Grand Turk, yielding a steady supply of fresh dairy products, meats and produce, and reduce their cost by sending the planes back with seafood bound for Miami. The plant’s refrigerators and freezers can be used to keep incoming products for wholesale and its large yard will make an ideal storage facility for boats.”

As a final link in the chain, Seamus is keen on a new seawater greenhouse concept developed by A.C. Paton, of London, UK, represented in the Caribbean by Modern Water Technologies, Inc. ( www.waterplusfood.com ) He says, “Seawater is pumped into a specially equipped greenhouse, where it cools and humidifies air passing into the planting area, creating an ideal growing environment. This cool air flows towards a condenser assembly. Before reaching the condenser, the air is further humidified to the saturation point by various means. The saturated air flows past the cold surface of the condenser, leaving behind fresh water droplets which are collected into a storage tank which provides irrigation water for the plants growing in the greenhouse. A one hectare greenhouse can produce as much as 550,000 liters per day of fresh water, enough to irrigate 15 hectares under shade.”

Does this all sound like a heat-induced fantasy? Don’t be too quick to nay-say. The enthusiastic Day brothers believe that such synergistic projects–which do NOT rely on the voluble tourism industry and which can be funded by a blend of development aid grants and private funding–are the way forward to self-sufficiency for the Turks & Caicos Islands. They say, “We’d like to succeed in lots of small projects that are doable in scope . . . the key is stitching them all together.”

Continuing The Pioneering Spirit

By Anthony Taylor

The name of Bob Cooper probably doesn’t mean much to most people in the TCI these days, but his influence is felt in almost every home, hotel, resort, restaurant and bar in the country. Back in the early 1980s, Cooper was running a small business on Providenciales testing and writing about the latest in satellite and radio communications in his own magazine, Coop’s Satellite Digest, and as such was the only person on the island with his own satellite dish, and thus TV.

At the behest of Lewis Astwood, Minister of Public Works at the time, Cooper was asked if he would share his equipment and technology with the Islands to provide television service in return for being allowed to bring in any additional equipment duty-free. When he agreed, West Indies Video, or as we now know it, WIV Cable TV Ltd., was born.
“We started with only one channel back then, WTBS,” recalls Peter Stubbs, General Manager of WIV Cable TV and one of the founding employees of the company. “Also, the only electricity was in Turtle Cove which had an AC/DC supply. I remember when the whole island congregated at the old Island Princess hotel to watch an Ali fight. It was a fun night!”

Working with Cooper at the time was Valentine Pratt. The two men developed the system into a three channel UHF system using a converter box. “Not long after that I was at home sick one day when Valentine called and offered me two weeks of work with them. I had a steady job, but gave that up as I was really interested in what they were doing,” says Stubbs, “and I never looked back.”

Neither did the company. By 1985 they had further developed WIV to be able to use cable as their delivery system and employing the by-now installed PPC poles as their network, were able to sign up their first subscriber, Willard Williams. More subscribers followed, although service was still only available in four areas of the island–Turtle Cove, Blue Hills, Five Cays and the Bight–as these were the main residential areas back then.

“By 1986 we’d grown out of our site down in the Bight and we needed to move to a new location,” says Stubbs. “Our current site was chosen which just left us with the monumental task of moving the huge satellite dishes to their new home. We had to carefully load them onto trucks and then very slowly move them down the road at about 5 MPH. It was quite a undertaking, but we managed it.”

With the new location came the ability to add more channels by switching to the FM frequency, which offered more bandwidth, which WIV did, taking them from 24 to 30. Then, in 1992 and quite unexpectedly, Bob Cooper left Providenciales. “It was a difficult time,” admits Stubbs. “When Bob left he took a lot of expert knowledge. I’d been working as chief linesman and designer so I knew a lot but it was a question of the rest of us pulling together and making it work.”

For the next two years, Peter Stubbs, Mike Scism, Patti Burke (Cooper’s wife) and the rest of the employees carried on running WIV with much success until, in 1994, Burke decided to sell her majority shareholding in the company to Blanchard TCI Ltd., which also owned Turks & Caicos Television and Turks & Caicos Utilities in Grand Turk. Although ownership of the company was now in their hands, Blanchard TCI Ltd. were keen to keep the existing staff on with Peter Stubbs as general manager. Since then the company has focused on expanding the network and making it available to an ever-increasing audience.

Now, thanks to an investment of over $4 million, WIV is about to continue the pioneering spirit that is part of its heritage and install a state-of-the-art 750 mHz, two-way fibre optic cable network across the Islands. According to Bob Blanchard Jr., president of Blanchard TCI Ltd., the company is finalizing the design of the new system and anticipates installation to begin in early May. “Our current schedule is to have the new system operational within eight months of starting,” says Blanchard. “In addition, we will be building a 9,000 sq. ft. office and studio center.”

Both men concede that the existing system is stretched to its limit and that the new system is just in time. “Apart from the increased programming capability that comes with the new system, the number of outages will also be reduced dramatically, as for the first time we will have a separate back-up power supply throughout the system,” adds Stubbs. “If the power goes down in a limited area, viewers in other areas won’t be affected.”

The increased programming will lead to tiered packages offered, with specific movie, sports and foreign channels being available just as with satellite operations like Direct TV, although Blanchard is quick to point out that WIV will be seeking to have little or none of its channels. The good news for customers doesn’t stop there–if you are a frequent Internet user, high-speed access will also be available, so no more slow downloads!

Stubbs is also proud of the fact that with the arrival of their new studios will be a greater focus on local programs through Channel 4. “We want to do much more in the way of local reporting to really encourage the people of the Turks & Caicos to get involved with what’s going on in their country,” he says.

The technology may have changed but the spirit at WIV remains.



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Photographer Marta Morton was enjoying another spectacular sunset when she spotted this lovely scene—a picture-perfect clump of Old Man Cacti and the pastel colours of what she later learned were crepuscular rays (see page 18). For more of Marta’s images, turn the pages of this issue and visit www.harbourclubvillas.com.

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