Veterans want 99-year-lease on Queen’s Park HQ

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Royal Air Force Association building on Queen’s Park East, Port of Spain. – SUREASH CHOLAI

The Royal Air Forces Association (RAFA) and the TT Federation of Veterans’ Associations are asking the Government to give them a 99-year-lease for their headquarters at 20 Queen’s Park East, Port of Spain.

As chairman of both associations Dennis Olivier said the associations are fearful, come next year, its current 30-year-lease may not be renewed at all.

It wants two parcels of land known as 20 Queen’s Park East to be merged and the lease granted for that property. This, he said, is for the future of all of TT’s military.

Royal Air Force Association chairman Dennis Olivier ,left, and treasurer Gerard Giuseppi with the proposed design of the new building they want to build on their compound on Queen’s Park East, Port of Spain. – SUREASH CHOLAI

The Remembrance Day ceremony was held on November 13, when the Prime Minister as well as President Paula-Mae Weekes attended a wreath-laying occasion at the Cenotaph to honour members of the armed forces who served and fell in combat in World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945). The annual Memorial Day parade also took place.

But for Olivier and his team, this year’s observance was a farce in light of what is happening with the association’s headquarters. Part of the land they occupy has been barred off.

In 2018, the Urban Development Corporation (Udecott) fenced off part of theland.

Questioned by Newsday as to what is to be done with the land, Udecott said it will house its own new head offices, and construction is expected to begin in the first quarter of next year.

It was barred off because of an electronic billboard being placed there. A July 11, 2019 Cabinet note said the association had allowed the billboard to be placed on the property without authority. It added that the RAFA was given notice to quit the land that December.

Artifacts kept inside the Royal Air Force Association building ,Queen’s Park Savannah East. – SUREASH CHOLAI

“While the billboard is no longer broadcasting electronic advertisements, the billboard itself remains on state land without authorisation. It is vital that this parcel of land be protected from further squatting,” it said, and the Minister of Agriculture, Lands and Fisheries (then Clarence Rambharat) recommended that the land should be vested in Udecott.

Olivier said a meeting was held with minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries Nigel De Freitas on December 5 at his Chaguanas office.

“Basically, we explained the situation to the minister and he said he would look into it. He would investigate and contact Udecott.”

Olivier said the associations were told the matter had to be referred to Minister of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries Kazim Hosein. De Freitas said he would get back to them but could not give a definitive timeline for doing so, Olivier said.

Olivier said the associations wrote to Hosein requesting a meeting on November 18 and he promptly responded to them on November 19. He said the associations got a call from De Freitas’ personal assistant to schedule the meeting.

A plaque commemorating the lives of TT members of the Royal Air Force that died during World War II stands at the association’s headquarters, Queen’s Park East, Port of Spain. – SUREASH CHOLAI

He added that the associations also hope to meet with the Prime Minister on the matter.

RAFA has plans to develop the space. It wants to build a nine-storey building that would include a three-storey medical facility that would drive economic growth for it, as well as the country, Olivier said.

It would also house the veterans and rental space for businesses.

History of 20 Queen’s Park East

The property was leased to the Overseas Forces Club for ten years in 1921. The lease was then renewed in 1931 and 1942.

The 2019 Cabinet note said, “There appear to have been in the 1950s two buildings on the site – a main building and a cottage on the north boundary. It appears that steps were taken by the then Government to secure a surrender of the lease and use the main building on that site for the Central Library.”

The note explained in the 1950s-60s, there were two parcels of state land in use by the association, one measuring 6,767 square feet and the other 19,198 square feet, a total of 25, 965 square feet (he Cabinet note gives a total of 25,650 square feet).

It added that in 1959, the executive council approved a lease to RAFA of the building and land comprising 5,925 square feet known as 20 Queen’s Park East for 30 years, with the option to renew for another 30.

Over the years the RAFA applied to the Commissioner of State Lands for the parcels to be merged, but permission was not granted.

The Cabinet note said based on a series of letters between the Commissioner of State Lands and RAFA between 2013 and 2017, in July 2017 the commissioner prepared and submitted a draft Cabinet note asking for a 2012 institutional lease to RAFA to be rescinded and instead a state grant issued for the property.

The commissioner also asked the cabinet to agree to the amalgamation of the two parcels of land.

However, in the 2019 Cabinet note the minister asked for the 19,198-square-feet piece of land to be vested in Udecott, with the corporation taking immediate steps to secure the parcel of land.

The association shared a 1997 letter in which the Director of Surveys proposed to recommend to Cabinet a new lease to be granted to the TT Legion of the British Commonwealth Ex-Service League (another veterans’ league) at 20 Queen’s Park East, with certain conditions, among them a 99-year-lease.

Cabinet accepted the minister’s recommendations.

But Olivier said the association does not agree with the 2019 Cabinet note that vested that parcel of land in Udecott.

‘Teach our military history’

The association will reapply for the entire space (25, 650 square feet) as well as for the 99-year-lease.

The current lease confines it to certain activities and does not allow it to be self-sufficient. Getting the state grant would allow it to earn and to keep the association and its headquarters running, Olivier said.

He also sees it as a space where TT’s younger generations can learn of its military history.

“Right now, 90 per cent of the population don’t know why we wear the poppy and don’t have a clue about our history. We want to contribute to the education and enlightenment of the younger generation,” he said.

He added that Trinidadians have been fighting for freedom for years.

“I suspect our 30-year-lease comes up for renewal in 2023, and I suspect they are not going to give us a lease. Having blocked off the space, where we cannot use the space to have activities to raise money to maintain the place, they will tell us it is an abomination and we are not using the place.”

The association said it is even willing to challenge the Government legally, once it gets the legal resources to do so.