"We will believe it when we see it"
Portsmouth residents and businessmen react to the Budget-announced replacement of Ross University School of Medicine
Despite many Portsmouth residents and business owners expressing a feeling of abandonment by the government and frustration over the lack of economic activities in the north, the latest news of yet another replacement for Ross University is being taken with a pinch of salt.
August 4, 2022, marked the fourth anniversary since Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit delivered the heart-wrenching news to the nation that the offshore American educational facility, Ross University School of Medicine (RUSM), had pulled out of Dominica after 40 years, and would instead shift its operations to Barbados.
Four years on, the business community in Portsmouth still longs for a miracle, the return of Ross as the pain of its departure still lingers.
Delivering a semblance of hope in this year's budget, the nation's leader indicated that a new medical school will soon commence operation in Portsmouth.
"Mr. Speaker, since the departure of Ross University, Government has received several expressions of interest to establish a medical school at that facility. I am pleased to announce that after several months of negotiations, the Government has entered into an agreement with CSOM Holdings Limited for the operation of a medical school at the former Ross University Campus at Picard which will be named the American Canadian School of Medicine," Skerrit stated.
The school, he said, will offer a 4-year medical degree (MD) designed for students who have already completed bachelor's degrees and will be run by an experienced team of doctors who have held positions at major universities in the United States including a former Vice President of Operations of the RUSM.
Initial preparations for a September 2023 commencement have started and will accelerate over the next few months, Skerrit said.
Residents of Portsmouth are skeptical
While the Prime Minister urged all Dominicans to be prepared for the opportunities which will be created with the return of a medical school and expressed his optimism over the university's potential, Portsmouth resident and businessman, Pat Corbette says, "we will believe it when we see it."
"This is not the first announcement we have heard about a replacement for Ross," he told The Sun in an exclusive interview. "Yes, we would like to see something happen because the place is just sitting closed like a big white elephant but I'm not getting too excited. I have adopted a wait-and-see policy like many others."
Following RUSM's departure, the Prime Minister made several pronouncements promising replacements, the first of those in 2018 when he stated that four parties had shown interest in utilizing the government-owned facility in Portsmouth to operate a medical school in Dominica.
On November 25, 2020, the Dominica University & School of Medicine (DUSM) revealed that it had taken over the compound and commenced classes for the Doctor of Medicine degree. The university also mentioned plans for the commencement of face-to-face classes but said such had been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to medicine, the DUSM revealed that it is also offering degree programmes in nursing and pharmacy as well as courses in forensic science and medical marijuana.
One month later, in December 2022, Skerrit publicly stated that his government was not ruling out the option of terminating their relationship with DUSM as they were experiencing "some issues" with the investor in terms of the approach that has been taken in the past.
The Prime Minister said his Cabinet will make a decision on this sooner rather than later and provide an opportunity for a second group.
With no word to the nation on his Cabinet's decision, in October 2021, following a visit to the UAE and Pakistan, Skerrit disclosed the interest of yet another university in replacing RUSM.
Other attempts at replacing Ross
Although the Prime Minister did not specifically indicate if an agreement had been made with any institution an article from a Pakistani news outlet indicated that the MOU was signed by a delegation headed by Emmanuel Nanthan with Dato' Gail Phung, Limkokwing University's Senior Vice President of Corporate Development for the establishment of Rawal International University Dominica in Dominica. To date no word on this arrangement.
While many wait with bated breath for the new university, the American Canadian School of Medicine, Corbette expressed a sense of hopelessness which, according to him, is reflected in the hundreds of people in Picard and Portsmouth whose economic earnings have been severely impacted for the past four years.
"It has been devastating since Ross left. Yes, we get one or two persons willing to rent our apartments but after a month they can't pay and we the landlords often find ourselves chasing people around to get our monies. So, things have been a real mess and a tough, tough road. I like many others, we are just hanging in by a very thin thread."
Portsmouth needs relief
Similar sentiments were echoed by another Portsmouth resident and businessman, Sean Douglas who said that he too is skeptical of the Prime Minister's latest pronouncement.
He pointed out that if the American Canadian School of Medicine does begin operation in 2023, this does not signal instant economic relief for the people of Portsmouth.
"When Ross arrived in 1978, it took them over a decade before things really kicked off because they only started with less than a dozen students. When this new school comes, we can't expect any major economic benefit for many, many years. It will take time and the people who have not recovered from Ross' departure will continue to suffer," Douglas asserted.
The former Press Secretary in the Skerrit administration posited that the Portsmouth constituency which has been a stronghold for the Dominica Labour Party (DLP) for the past 65 years has been left "penniless and impoverished" by the party they stand devoted to.
He said that their economic struggles as a result of the departure of RUSM have been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We feel deserted," Douglas said. "I am a business person and I can tell you I have seen business revenue fall for many people including myself. During the pandemic, a lot of people were employed at the Covid-19 centre which provided some sought of relief but now that the centres are closed, employment is again on the rise in the north and others who are working are doing so for poverty wages."
Compared to the capital city of Roseau, Douglas said, Dominica's second town has been given little to no attention by the DLP and fed false promises.
"When Val ferry came we were told that the people of Portsmouth would gain significantly, we have the Morocco Hotel which is completed as far as we know and it is yet to be opened. There is also the Anichi hotel, which was started and is yet to be completed. So we in Portsmouth at this time we wait to see what will happen, as our fingers are being burnt so often."
For the business, the community which once thrived from economic activities "is now submerged below sea level."
-By Ronalda Luke