This exclusive article with Michael Chen (President of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture of Colon ) is the second part of a report that seeks to capture the reality of a Province that has historically been in disadvantaged in multiple aspects, but that is beginning to reemerge like the Phoenix bird, with a new mentality and coherence.
The first part was focused on the problems facing the province and the new attitude that is required. This second installment seeks to shed light on the plans, programs and projects that are taking place and that will be carried out within the new attitude to face the great challenges of the province.
During the visit of The Visitor team, our guest dedicated his time and effort to tell the story of the building that houses this organization (former headquarters of the British embassy), as well as doing an exclusive “tour” through the impressive facilities of the huge Colon Duty Free shopping center. He also invested his valuable time driving the streets of Colon City, describing its history, the projects seeks to execute and the areas that have suffered deep problems for decades but that with the projects and will, this harsh reality will become a beacon of hope and development in the near future.
We begin this interview with the words of Michael Chen: “In Colon, everything has to be done and developed… The true sustainable development of any place requires a titanic effort from everyone working together: civil society, private companies, local government and national. Until we understand this, we will not move forward. Cities with similar situations have taken more than 2 decades (Guayaquil and Medellin). Now is the time to start with what is most valuable: our people.”
What is being planned in Colon for human development in the short, medium and long term?
“Historically, Colon has been considered a logistical place (ports and free zone) and attention has only been paid to this, the most important resource that is our people has been neglected. There is an incredible talent leaving and the few of us who are left are an endangered species. This must be reversed and changed, how? Being purposeful and acting. At Colon’s Chamber of Commerce we have understood that generating money is important but it is not the most important, things must be done differently. There has to be a change of ATTITUDE and WAY OF THINKING and that is why we started the program “Transform for New Opportunities” where we have impacted the lives of more than 300 young people, students, entrepreneurs and people in general. This program has the objective of strengthening the skills to face life and be participatory and proactive actors in the change that Colon needs. There must be a trigger that unleashes positive and purposeful changes in our people for change to occur.”
What projects have been planned to improve the entire infrastructure of Colon?
“The government should be the main manager for changes and investments in infrastructure and it is up to all of us, together with the government, to collaborate and take care of it. The government projects of which we are aware can be divided into two: Colon City and the Coast.
In Colón City there is a project underway to improve and build roads that, according to the government, is 82% complete. However, there is a very worrying situation with the flooding and garbage. As is known that many areas of the city are below sea level. This coupled with poor garbage disposal, lack of maintenance and repair of water pumps, destruction of mangroves, and poor planning. We are victims of constant flooding. It is urgent that we all pay attention to this situation so that it does not become worse than already is. Regarding Costa Abajo, the road to Fort San Lorenzo is in very good condition and is around 95% complete.
The restoration of Fort San Lorenzo is also quite advanced. We are glad to know that a San Lorenzo Visitors Center is being built, a work that is financed by the Inter-American Development Bank at a cost of B/. 6.8 million and is scheduled to be completed in 2024. It is around 15-20% complete. Regarding Costa Arriba, the order to proceed was given for the Quebrada Ancha-Maria Chiquita highway. As is known, the construction should be completed by the end of 2024. The Portobelo Customs building is also being remodeled, which will serve as a museum. All of this generates a good signal for tourism and connectivity on the upstream coast of Colon. Other projects in progress that can be mentioned are: the new Manuel Amador Guerrero Hospital and the Center for Art and Culture (formerly Abel Bravo). It is up to us, the citizens and private companies to ensure that the government completes and provides the necessary maintenance to all these projects.
What projects are being planned for the micro, small and medium-sized companies in the province, especially in the Tourism and related segment.
“The only way to reactivate the economy is through micro, small and medium-sized companies that make up 90% of the country’s business park. A good example that we can take is the “Economic Miracle of Japan” after World War II, the Japanese government understood the importance of empowering small entrepreneurship through creativity, innovation and funds.
We have a golden opportunity to exploit traditional tourism and shopping tourism. That is why Colon’s Chamber of Commerce has created the Caribbean Market in front of its facilities. This space has the purpose of promoting artisans and micro and small entrepreneurs to expose their creations and crafts to visiting tourists. The Colon Experience project has also been created, and seeks to publicize the culture, history, gastronomy and places in the Costa Abajo, Costa Arriba and Colon City areas through guided tours. All these initiatives have as their goal the creation of new ventures that arise from the products and services that can be offered through tourism and the visitors that come to our province.”
What projects are there to recover the verve, history and the privileged geographical position of Colon?
“The city of Colon is the best hidden treasure that deserves to be discovered for the enjoyment of many. How to enhance it? Through the implementation of “Colon Puerto Libre”, an inclusive plan that aims to reactivate the economy, promote investment, create jobs, rescue spaces and involve people. Just as the Colon Free Zone was created in 1948 through the impulse of Colon’s Chamber of Commerce, the Colon Free Port Special System can catapult a giant “Duty Free” in the 16 streets of the city to promotes the sale of retail products tax free. This would promote national and international investment and take advantage of the arrival of cruise ships and tourists, as is the case in Aruba and the Bahamas. For Colon Puerto Libre to work, the good will of the government and private companies is needed. The private company has already taken the first step by investing in Shopping Centers for Duty Free sales. An example of this is Colon 2000 Duty Free, which consists of a giant shopping center with an investment of more than 50 million dollars and 150 commercial stores. It is expected that this shopping center alone will generate more than 1,000 direct jobs.
What events do you have planned that will help invite foreigners and locals to Colón?
“From the private company, we plan to carry out Expo Colon 2023 to promote our province and show the benefits we have to offer. Colon is not only the Free Zone, the ports and insecurity. We have to work hard so that everyone knows that Colon is also history, culture, gastronomy and most importantly good and caring people.
Is there a campaign that seeks to help in the positioning of the province and in the communication of everything that is being planned and carried out?
“There is no government-level marketing campaign that we know of. However, I think that private companies can also help send a positive message to restore confidence in Colon and promote a generation of purposeful changes that invites everyone to participate. That is why we are about to launch the campaign: Colon: “Change Starts With Me”. This campaign is more than a phrase, is a compendium of initiatives that seeks to invite everyone to assume the responsibility of being agents of change and breaking paradigms in the province. It seeks social transformation through a change of mentality that is strengthened by education. It seeks to go back to the basics, to things that seem insignificant (disposal of trash properly, following the laws, good manners, etc.) but have a big impact. Once we manage to master the basics, then we will be ready for all the good things that are coming for Colon.”