A new, modern Haiti is rising from the earthquake rubble
Construction takes place on new homes being built in Zorange, Haiti, Jan. 4, 2012. Two years after Haiti's most horrifying 35 seconds, seeds of progress are evident across this battered nation where a devastating earthquake left 300,000 dead and some 1.5 million homeless in its capital and surrounding cities.
DELMAS, Haiti — The building’s concrete frame rises 40 feet in a commercial zone that connects devastated suburbs, its tall steel tendons saluting a blue sky.
Haitian envisioned, Haitian financed and Haitian constructed, the modern 10-story building under construction is part of a new vision for Haiti, showcasing the promise and challenge facing a nation struggling to rebuild from the January 2010 earthquake.
“It’s a new beginning,” said Patrick Figaro, 45, the developer of Genesis, which borrows its name from the biblical narrative about the creation of civilization. “We are not only talking about revitalizing an area, but setting the standard for the modern Haiti.”
More than two years after the 7.0-magnitude temblor destroyed much of Haiti’s capital and punched a hole in an already brittle economy, many envisioned a construction boom with dozens of projects, similar to Genesis, peppering the skyline. With $10 billion in aid pledged, the donor community had offered more than enough capital to begin a new city.
But donor funds lagged, and the public spending needed to grow the economy has been slow to take root.
Still, some like Figaro, a Haiti-born U.S.-educated architectural engineer, aren’t waiting on donors or the government to get moving. Figaro and his brothers have received help from local and international Haitian investors, one of the country’s largest banks, and hundreds of local skilled and low-skilled laborers.
For months, their family-run construction firm, Arcotec Haiti, has been quietly transforming a little under an acre at one of Haiti’s most important strategic commercial gateways into a modern seismic and hurricane resistant complex. Taking place largely out of public view, except for the 80-foot construction crane perched in the skyline, Genesis offers up three levels of underground parking and 100,000 square feet of commercial rental space that will include a rooftop cafe and 25 extended-stay hotel rooms for business travelers.
“This could easily be built in Miami,” said Javier Salman, the Cuban-American architect who designed the all-glass exterior, “modern, cutting-edge building” that will eventually rise 123 feet and be backlit at night. “It will be visible from the port, and from the Port-au-Prince airport. It screams, ‘Here I am.’ ”
Claude Pierre-Louis, executive director of Sogebank, agrees that the structure is state-of-the-art.
“This project has a lot of imagination,” he said.
But that’s not the sole reason why Sogebank decided to provide $9 million in financing, Pierre-Louis said. Genesis, which is within walking distance of Sogebank’s quake-damaged headquarters, also responds to a need for commercial space, said Pierre-Louis, who plans to lease three floors. Construction of the building range between $15 million and $20 million.
“As a bank, we’ve always believed in the future of Haiti,” he said.
That future in recent years, has included several confidence-boosting, high-profile ventures by Haiti’s private sector including E-Power, a $56.7 million power generation investment, and soon-to-open $38 million Royal Oasis Hotel, which Arcotec built.
Like these entrepreneurs, observers say, the Figaros are taking a calculated risk to invest in hard assets, which require a longer than usual payback period in a country that has been unstable in the past, and whose private sector suffered $2.7 billion in losses in the quake, according to a survey by the sector’s Economic Forum.
“The Figaros are a model,” said prominent Haitian economist Kesner Pharel, because of the brothers’ alliance “with international firms to bring the know-how and the best practices in the construction field in Haiti.”
Haiti’s growth, Pharel said, isn’t just limited by economics, but also by the small size of its construction companies. As a result, most have lost out on the few available post-quake contracts, mostly to Dominican firms, because they lack the capacity and technical skills.
“We need some great re-engineering in order to become more competitive,” Pharel said.
Unlike many of Haiti’s post-quake construction projects, however, Genesis has no donor dollars. The little foreign input comes by way of its design, the international building codes to ensure that it can sustain any future quake with little or no damage and use of the Miami-Dade County hurricane code.
“This is about reinventing our image, and trying to show the world that Haitians can build too, and they can build something that is earthquake resistant and to the right standards,” said Greg Figaro, 42, who left his health care consultancy business in Boston to join Arcotec as executive chairman.
It’s also about reinventing the way business has been traditionally done in a country that continuously ranks at the bottom of the International Finance Corporation’s Doing Business Survey. For instance, to attract investors, the brothers formed a development company. There also is a board of directors to share in strategic decision-making.
“There is a new generation in many of these family-owned groups that has come to understand the country cannot be developed without the majority of the population being a part of it,” said Ary Naim, Haiti and Dominican Republic country head for the IFC, the World Bank’s private sector arm. “They understand that everything they do has to be sustainable and inclusive.”
The IFC has a $55 million investment portfolio in Haiti with several private sector partners, including the Oasis and E-Power.
While unfamiliar with the Genesis project, Naim said Haiti’s private sector remains its biggest asset, especially for sorely needed job creation.
Still, some question the wisdom of building in Delmas, a particularly hard-hit city that has become known more for its densely populated sprawling slums and traffic congestion than its redevelopment potential.
Owned by the Figaro family for decades, the Genesis site was first developed in the 1970s by family patriarch Gerard Figaro. Haiti was transitioning from father to son in the brutal Duvalier dictatorship and textiles were the new market. A visionary, Figaro transformed the site into the headquarters for Citibank and Texaco.
Soon, the Imperial Movie Theater arrived across the street in the mostly underdeveloped, wooded area of residential homes of well-to-do families. Years later, Sogebank built its iconic sleek and modern headquarters. The boom then turned to bust, and a lack of zoning laws gave way to slums and urban sprawl.
Texaco left. Citibank stayed but the T-shaped building partially collapsed in the quake, killing several Citibank employees.
The brothers faced a quandary: walk away or use the property once again inspire development.
“It’s exactly the dream that my dad had,” said Rudy Figaro, 52, who returned to Haiti last year to head Arcotec as COO after 25 years as a software engineer in Boston. “He achieved it, from 1971 to ’75. There wasn’t anything in that area, just a road. For us, doing something like this represents the same thing, several decades later.”
But it hasn’t been easy. Everything from the soil to the weather to finding workers capable of constructing such an intricate building has been a challenge, say the Figaros. For months the project was delayed because both the site and neighboring property were occupied by quake victims.
And during the recent rainy season, the 120 workers on the morning shift began every day by pumping flood water off the site.
“I learn every day and what I learn I share with my people,” Patrick Figaro said a recent morning.
At least a dozen workers are former tent dwellers and previously jobless. Others like Prevy Docteur are returnees from the nearby Turks and Caicos.
“Coming here every day, I am happy,” said Docteur, who supervises a crew of carpenters. “There are a lot of people in Haiti with knowledge and who can work. All that’s missing is the opportunity.”