THA abandons ‘Tobago house’ in Trinidad months after paying rent

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

A maintenance worker places a For Rent sign on Pembroke Place which the THA had rented for use as office in Trinidad but never occupied. – AYANNA KINSALE

THE Tobago House of Assembly (THA) has decided not to renew the lease on a building located at 24-26 Pembroke Place, Pembroke Street in Port of Spain.

The THA had been renting the vacant building for a period of 10 months with the intention of establishing a THA presence in Trinidad.

According to a real estate website, the building will be available for rent from September 3 at $95,000 plus VAT per month.

The unfurnished three-storey building with basement has an 8,556 sq ft floor area.

Meanwhile, PNM Tobago Council political leader Ancil Dennis is demanded that the THA reveals “how much of the taxpayers’ money literally went up in smoke in that arrangement, with absolutely no benefit to Tobagonians.”

The purpose of this office was to provide THA services to Tobagonians in Trinidad and ensure that they had access to their government, Chief Secretary Farley Augustine said in 2022.

But on Thursday afternoon, workmen were observed putting up a “For Rent” sign at the entrance of the building. The THA office, which was reminiscent of an embassy, fell under the Office of the Deputy Chief Secretary.

From September 2022 until June, there was hardly any activity within the building, apart from security measures and scheduled maintenance carried out by workmen. Augustine confirmed in 2021 that his administration was in discussions to set up the office at that location.

Soon after, Newsday noticed, SWAT security officers had been stationed at the building and it seemed as though the office space was being prepared for its new tenants.

The proposal for the establishment of a “THA embassy” in Trinidad was first introduced by Watson Duke, the leader of the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP), just days before the THA elections on December 6, 2021.

Duke, who was previously the deputy chief secretary, informed Newsday recently that as far as he’s aware the THA had given up the building in 2022.

However, in the middle of a public spat between Augustine and Duke, Augustine had told reporters on September 14, 2022, that the THA was interested and was in negotiation for Pembroke Place at the time.

One day after Duke resigned as deputy chief secretary, months shy of the anniversary of the THA election where his party emerged victorious with a 15-1 margin against the PNM.

Duke’s resignation came after a week-long dispute with Augustine over the allocation of resources to a group of Tobagonians who Duke claimed was stranded in New York.

Sources from Tobago revealed that the building had been rented out from September 2022 until the present at “a significant cost.”

The lease is set to end in two months, and it will not be renewed after the one-year term expires in September.

On June 8, Augustine briefly visited the building during a trip to Trinidad. Newsday was unable to confirm the exact time of his arrival, but he was spotted leaving the underground car park shortly after 3 pm that day.

Following Duke’s departure from the Assembly, Faith BYisrael, the Secretary of the Division of Health Wellness and Social Protection, was sworn in as the new deputy chief secretary.

With BYisrael taking over from Duke, the “Tobago house” would have been responsible for leading Tobago’s autonomy journey, as the bill is scheduled for discussion in this parliamentary session. Duke was referring to The Constitution (Amendment) Tobago Self-Government Bill 2020 and the Tobago Island Administration Bill 2021 which are before a Joint Select Committee.

During BYisrael’s swearing-in ceremony on September 20, Augustine informed Newsday that the building would have served multiple purposes.

He said, “I would not use the term ‘embassy,’ but having a Tobago house in Port of Spain will serve several purposes. It will allow for Tobago’s very large diaspora that lives in Trinidad to have access to their government. Secondly, the office will be responsible for marketing, courting investments, and also will assist with intergovernmental relations necessary. It will assist with the thrust (to) greater autonomy.”

Newsday understands discussions were held earlier this year to repurpose the building.

However, when contacted for comment on Thursday afternoon, BYisrael was unable to provide any details on the amount the THA had been paying for the lease, the reason for terminating the lease, or whether the idea of a THA house is still being pursued.

This development comes less than a week after Newsday submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for a complete and unedited copy of the contract for the acquisition of the building, along with the details of monthly maintenance costs and other expenses associated with the upkeep of the property.

Newsday also requested information on the purpose of the rental, but the THA has yet to respond to these inquiries. Attempts to reach Augustine for comments on this and several other matters have been unsuccessful. Speaking to Newsday on Saturday, Duke said this development means “the autonomy for Tobago is now shelved.” He said there are also multiple projects to stimulate Tobago’s economy – all proposed in the PDP mandate during the election – that have also been disregarded.

He claimed he had no knowledge of when the contract for leasing the building was signed and what are the details of the agreement.

Duke admitted to identifying the building for rental when PDP assumed office in 2021 but up until he left – mid-September 2022 – no official contractual arrangement had been made.

Duke hopes the THA executive will announce a new plan for the “Tobago embassy-like” idea.

“Augustine continues to lead the team without a proper mandate and a vision for Tobago. Everything they set out to do is being compromised by their agenda of some to become famous, fast and furious.

“It is important for Tobago to have a presence in Trinidad similar to the presence Trinidad had in Tobago in the form of Central Administrative Services Tobago (CAST) office in Scarborough. There is no community advocating for Tobago’s autonomy in Trinidad. That as the role it was earmarked to do.”

Duke said while Augustine continues to pick fights with the Prime Minister while Tobago’s business goes unattended.

Augustine and the Prime Minister have had public spats over the central government’s relationship with the THA with allegations of interference and a conspiracy to undermine the THA administration.

On Friday, Dennis called on the THA make the details of the rental contract public.

“They promised transparency before getting into office, so it will be no problem to provide the people of Tobago with information and tell us how much this cost the taxpayers for the period of time in which the building was leased and stayed empty.”

He suggested the THA do away with all plans to set up a THA office in Trinidad. Instead, he proposed the money be used to pave a way for Tobago business to tap into the Trinidad market.

“It is concerning to hear that the THA went with this building for a period of a year and someone walked away with probably millions with no benefit to the people of Tobago. It requires an explanation and I hope the people of Tobago are provided with that.”