The Belize City Center was inaugurated with much fanfare when it opened its doors on April thirtieth, 2018. That was at least two years before COVID-19 became a reality. In the time before the pandemic made its way to Belize, the building was hardly in use, despite the number of scheduled events necessary for its stakeholders to turn a profit. Since March of last year, the giant sliding doors that protect the structure have remained shut and the future of the facility built from PetroCaribe largess was up in the air. In the coming months the Civic will be turned over to the Ministry of Sports, Youth and e-Governance and plans are to join forces with the Belize City Council to operate and maintain the sporting complex. News Five’s Isani Cayetano reports.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
The Belize City Center, one of several multimillion-dollar facilities constructed through Belize Infrastructure Limited, remains closed to the public. Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic which has forced the indefinite suspension of many, if not all, sporting activities, a new political administration is in office and there are questions regarding the building’s usage and upkeep. Taking over from the former Minister of Sports is Kevin Bernard whose portfolio also includes youths and e-governance.
Kevin Bernard, Minister of Sports
“Currently it is still under the control of BIL. BIL is now under the Ministry of Infrastructure [Development] and Housing, however, I must say that the National Sports Council, the Ministry of Sports, Youth and e-Governance will be writing to the Prime Minister and to the Minister of Infrastructure [Development] because we are told that the said management contract has come to an end, it has expired and they are now looking at handing over the Civic Center back to the Ministry of Youth and Sports and e-Governance since it’s a sporting facility.”
Built at an estimated cost of thirty-four million Belize dollars, the Civic Center stands as one of the most expensive structures in the country and its maintenance alone carries an exorbitant cost. It is not clear what, if any, profits have been realized from use of the facility. The management contract to which Minister Bernard alludes was an agreement between Apex Events Service and the previous government.
“We at the NSC and under my ministry, we are finding ways in terms of how we can partner with the Belize City Council in terms of this facility and the proper use and maintenance of this facility. I must say that from just the estimates that we are told, the monthly maintenance cost is very high and the current budget that the National Sports Council has will never be able to sustain the maintenance of that building.”
In March 2018, upon assuming management of the facility, Chad Eckert informed of the many potential uses of the edifice and its outdoor spaces. Notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic which shuttered the building, its usage on a month-to-month basis was limited to only a few events.
Chad Eckert, Proprietor, Apex Events Services Ltd. [File: March 19
“We can have large conventions, small conventions, you could have business meetings, you could have trainings. It’s basically unlimited for whatever ideas you have here. We’re gonna be creating multiple rental venue spots in the building alone, I think we’ve come up with about seven different areas in the building that can be rented individually or simultaneously. You could also have, one of our ideas is where you can rent the inside, as well as the outside. You have like a large expo or something where you can have vendors on the inside and you can have, you can have them wrap around the court inside here, around the upstairs. You can have them all out in the parking lot as well.”
Despite an unspecified delay in the resumption of sporting activities, Minister Bernard says that it is important to regain control of the facility and its management. Director of Sports Oscar Arnold is also a member of the Belize City Council and is, himself, a sports enthusiast.
“We feel that it is critical that we get back hold of the Civic Center, there’s a lot of potential that we can utilize the center for and I believe that we cannot continue having it sitting there. The more that building is not put to use it is going to run down. It’s going to be another eyesore if we don’t get to that building. And so, I know last week when I met with the director, the C.E.O. and I were discussing and I briefly reached out to the Minister of Infrastructure Development, Honorable Julius Espat, who also supports our initiative in taking over back the Civic Center so that we can properly start to manage that Civic Center. You know, as part of our planned, phased in approach to sports, we are in this pandemic but we are also looking at ways how we can get back these facilities up to track.”
Because of COVID, the Civic Center has not been used for the sporting activities and other events it was built for. But out of sight does not mean out of mind, and the Ministry of Sports has set its sights on managing the 33 million dollar facility.
According to Minister Kevin Bernard, the building is currently under the Ministry of Infrastructure, but he is looking for collaboration with private sector to transfer the management where he believes it rightfully belongs - under the Sports Council. He spoke to us via Zoom:
Hon. Kevin Bernard, Minister of Sports "Currently as you know the civic center is under the care and auspices under BIL which is under the ministry of infrastructure and Development and so we are working closely with the Minister Julius to ensure that we can look at ways that we can bring over back the civic center over under our control, but we have to be real, this is a very huge expensive building and the cost that we have and the budget that we currently have for sports is very limited, but under this new government and under the commitment by our prime minister to ensure that youth and sports get its right attention. That is the reason why we have a ministry now of youth and sports and e-governance and youth and sports play a critical role and so we are looking at where we can partner with the Belize City Council. Like I said it is not something that has been final. It is still under BIL, its still under the ministry of infrastructure and development. We have been in negotiation with them and I know that at the end of the day that its a sporting facility. It was always under NSC. We must return the facility under the NSC."
"When I spoke to the minister and the cost that is being levied on the monthly maintenance for this facility is very huge. So we have to look at that. With our new budget cycle coming up we are looking at presenting a comprehensive plan, but like I said we have to look at partners, we have to look at stakeholders, we have to look at how we can jointly work with the civic center and I think that we cannot continue to operate it in that white elephant opportunity, but we have to start look at it from a venture opportunity where the organization that maintains it start to also see some form of revenues."
No Organized Sports Allowed, Still
But for now, the Civic Center remains closed as sporting activities are illegal under the quarantine laws. But a group of footballers didn't let that stop them. While they were playing in the Banana Bank area over the weekend, police officers broke them up. But one player identified as Dale Pelayo told the officers the match was sanctioned by the Ministry of Sports since the players were part of a national selection.
The Ministry clarified in the strongest terms that they would never sanction an illegal sporting match.
But he did allude to the possibility of restrictions against sporting events - and gyms - becoming a little lax with new regulations that will be announced soon.
Hon. Kevin Bernard, Minister of Sports "The Ministry of Sports has never sanctioned any such event and I had made a statement clearly making that clear in the sense that we had no indication that this was happening. When I was approach through text by certain individuals and both by the police department I had to make it clear that the ministry never did sanctioned anything and I would never do that and I know that people want to get back to some form of normalcy, but they must respect the regulations and I will stick by that and I said it yesterday in cabinet, I made certain for certain sporting programs and I know that we have to respect the conditions that is facing us from a health perspective and I respect my colleagues and I know that from the ministry of health perspective. We cannot at this point open up sports the way we really want and so as the minister responsible for sports I want to caution those persons that are involved in these things that they have to stop."
"I have said to the minister that I have my certain recommendations, I know that some of our people in the stakeholders in the sports industry are saying to us we need to do certain things. So we are reaching out to them, giving us some proposals and we are going to reach out to see how we can get these things. The people in the gym for example they are reached out to us, because it's a fitness - a type of sport too, so they have reached out to us and their consideration have been looked at and I know the minister will reach out and say yes by today or tomorrow what are going to be the conditions that will take place in terms of the gyms."
"There are certain people in the cricket industry that have approached us that they have a tournament coming up in July. They want to start to practice. We have to look at certain conditions that has to be set out. The FIFA, FFB and PLB - we have to look at all of those issues that are facing them before we make a decision in terms of how we go about deciding what we are going to do about football and then you have volleyball discipline, the basketball discipline - all of these things we have to look at, but from a health perspective."
Reporter "You alluded to the discussion with the gyms. Does this mean they are looking at a safe and reasonable way to reopen them in the near future?"
Hon. Kevin Bernard, Minister of Sports "Yes. I can tell you that the minister of health will make some announcements for the gyms and I know that the people in the gyms will be very much pleased with some of the conditions that will be set out for those persons. I believe that we have listen to them, they have some very good ideas, they made some very good points and from their presentations we were able to come up with some good proposals."