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Roads Less Travelled
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
MY SINCERE apologies, but I cannot help but be amused about Monday's headlines about Negrenses "mourning" the loss of Ayala's investment in the contested Capitol property and asking President Aquino's help.
The withdrawal of Ayala Land from its contract with the provincial government to develop the capitol property may be seen as a setback to Bacolod City and the province, but to say that Negrenses mourn the loss smacks of high melodrama. It somehow gives the impression that the pullout of Ayala's investment has left Negros in total devastation, the recovery from which seems insurmountable. I cannot help but find this view ridiculous, to say the least.
Indeed, of the province's population of some 3 million, I seriously doubt if a significant fraction of that knows what Ayala Land Inc. is, much less care about the controversy leading to withdrawal from its contract with the provincial government. To say that "the Negrenses will start the mourning today, Monday, for the loss of a golden opportunity that should have been provided by Ayala Land Inc. (ALI)... "conjures images of widespread distress and bereavement across the Negros island.”
What eludes my understanding is the implication that only Ayala Land is capable of developing the capitol property to the benefit of the city and province, such that its pullout spells disaster. On the contrary, whether it is Ayala, or SM, or any developer with a good track record who acquires and develops the 7.7-hectare Capitol property, there will surely be a windfall of economic benefits to the city and province. There certainly is no informed basis to say one is superior over the other.
If there is a loss in economic benefits resulting from Ayala's pullout, it can only be temporary. The contested property is of such investment potential that it will not stay idle for long. In fact Ayala's withdrawal could just be the opening for other investors to come in.
Sidelined in all these is the fact that the hullabaloo is essentially a contest between two mall developer giants-SM and Ayala, with the provincial government caught in between. Or more accurately, Ayala and the capitol on the one hand, and SM, which had filed a case in court questioning the validity of the contract between the provincial government and Ayala, on the other.
I would not fault SM for filing a case in court for questions it felt had to be cleared up first, and it would be quite unfair to accuse the mall giant for throwing a wrench into the machinery of development of the property. I suppose Ayala would do exactly the same thing if it were in SM's place. The crux of the matter, if I recall right, is not who the better developer is, but whether the provincial government had faithfully followed the rules of bidding in awarding the contract to Ayala.
Somehow, this "mourning" action reminds me of the statements issued in support of the provincial government in the case filed by SM against the province. My view has always been that, far from projecting strength, the support statements issued by various groups, only served to underscore the insecure position of the province. If Capitol stood on solid ground regarding questions raised by SM in court, there would have been no big necessity to solicit mass support at all. In fact, I find it rather disconcerting that such campaign could have been made to influence the court. After all, the legal question was not who was the better investor, Ayala or SM, but whether procedures had been followed. Far from strengthening its legal position, the solicitation of mass support at best, was meant to shore up Capitol's confidence.
I say that ALI's withdrawal from the contract must have been a well studied and carefully weighed decision. It is entirely possible -- and there are strong indications -- that the Commission on Audit's decision on the matter will be adverse to the position of the provincial government. ALI's withdrawal might be viewed as a preemptive move. That way, any invalidation by the COA of its contract with the province would be rendered moot and academic.
On the other hand, it is no secret that SM's bigwigs had been introduced by a fast-rising political figure to the powers that be at Capitol. That occasion would have demanded a good amount of caution from the provincial leadership to ensure an unassailably fair decision in the bidding process. Subsequent events, however, found Capitol at a seemingly precarious position, with SM filing a case in court. It should have been left at that, giving the court the power to decide the merits of each side's position. Should the court find Capitol correct, then, well and good. If the province's decision is found defective, it could own up to its shortcomings, apologize, and make amends. However, someone had to come up with the bright idea of soliciting mass support from various sectors and organizations.
But in fact, the solicitation of mass support could not help but transform an otherwise simple legal or procedural issue into a political one. The campaign for mass support actually created the impression of the province's predisposition for Ayala Land. The so-called "mourning for the loss of Ayala" in the aftermath of ALI's pullout seems to bear this out. I will not be surprised if the next several days will see similar outpourings of "sorrow." At the end of the day, these mass actions do not have much value in defense of Capitol's decision at all, but only betray a bias for Ayala Land.
In a political system like ours, it is highly unlikely that the crossed parties would take this perceived bias sitting down. After all, we are talking here about some of the wealthiest and most influential companies and persons in the country. I would not easily dismiss the notion that the ALI-SM contest is one of the many explanations for the significant political realignments and reconfigurations we are witnessing in the province today.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the provincial leadership is at the crossroads. Cracks have been showing in the party unity and it is not difficult to trace some of these back to the ALI-SM controversy. I seriously doubt if Ayala would want to be at the center of issues in a political campaign. It is not beyond Ayala Land to point its nose to the wind and dread a change of provincial leadership in next year's election. The uncertainty this will bring to its bid to develop the capitol property is bound to give it sleepless nights. It is only logical that this early, Ayala Land, Inc. withdraws from its contract with Capitol.
As for the provincial leadership, I sincerely hope it will not reap the whirlwind.
Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on September 19, 2012.