Irony of ironies. Just when the trek to Baguio gets easier and easier with PIDCo steamrollering TPLEx through the still to be decided path through northern Pangasinan, one of the last two remaining bastions of low urban density pine clad Baguio - Camp John Hay or CJH - is destined to a fate probably more cruel than the neglect of the abandoned Metropolitan theater.
Admittedly rare coverage for a motoring column, there are destinations for our many long drive auto tests and new car launches that have found a place in our motoring journalists' hearts. Yes, its not a car or a road, but the journey and destination do set the tone of how well we can assess a car's strengths and weaknesses. Sort of like the Senate investigation's "in aid of legislation".
As much as it was home away from home for many Baguio holiday-makers, it was also our oasis of top class gentility with the comfort food of Billy King and welcoming service of the Manor staff. Instead of the spires of concrete jungle from our picture windows, pines and peaks calmed our high rpm hard driving lifestyles. Whatever the brand of car we drove, we all had our favorite "secret" photo backdrops, but always with the "must" giveaway backdrop of pines, lest we be accused of posing in Tagaytay Highlands. Whatever they say, the Manor was always a reward after driving some 300kms from our home base in the Metro.
It's still home
It may be a been there done that thing over the years, but the changing road scape along with the familiarity of the route - expressway, 2 lane black top, congested market towns, tropical mountain climb, dampening fog, glistening tarmac, naturally cool damp air - always made for a comprehensive all season kind of road test. Its not like those glam pre-launch world motoring press drives in the Mediterranean on a balmy winter, but its home.
Back in the mid-nineties...
That was the hope in the mid nineties, just before the Asian Crisis. Multi-brand assembly was the rage, as well as Semi-knocked down kits. A flood of car brands were setting up shop. Subic was the entrepôt of JDM European hot hatches from brands that we only read about in CAR UK magazine. The Skyway has just commenced building. The long neglected NLEx was to be upgraded by the Lopez group. Elsewhere, Rockwell and the Fort were paving the way to a genuine 21st century urban landscape right here in the Philippines. Bobby Ongpin's dream concept for Tagaytay Highlands, with Chef Gene Gonzalez as his culinary consultant, was about to take off.
Billy and the log cabins
The news wasn't all good though for up north, the projected conversion by a foreign investor of Camp John Hay and Poro Point into a paired beach-mountain resort casino complex did not materialize. Ever vigilant to salvage a deal, to make a pearl out of a sow's ear, Bob Sobrepena proposed what became CJHDevCo. the Camp John Hay Development Corp. Packaged into it were 2 high end low rise hotels - the Manor and the Manor Suites/Condo-apartel - and the Club John Hay Golf and Country Club. The icing on the cake was a restaurant to be run by no less than Billy King. And just like Tagaytay Highlands, Camp John Hay will have its idyllic clusters of charming log cabins.
Still, the going got better
A lot of car company and high end resort dreams fell by the wayside during the Asian Financial Crisis. But that didn't stop the post Pinatubo slow but sure improvement of the way to Baguio. DPWH continued to armor the cliffs of Kennon with shotcrete and unkink the elbow curves. A Japanese loan turned Marcos Highway into a decent and even relaxing mountain climb, with spare change to build a flyover at the Baguio General Hospital rotunda. Meantime, that century old doyenne of aristocratic Baguio, the Country Club, has, post Earthquake, regained its placid majesty, still isolated by the last of the remaining pine stands.
Irreconcilable differences: void vs. rescind
Like a work in progress, hostage to the changing winds of the powers that be, Camp John Hay has been what military types call a low intensity conflict between Bob Sobrepena's CJHDevCo - for simplicity's sake lets call them the lessee - and BCDA - the lessor. Like a rocky marriage, irreconcilable differences led this long boiling conflict to seek redress in an Dispute Resolution/Arbitration Panel which decided that CJHDevCo and BCDA go back to square one circa 1996, as if a contractor-contractee/lessor-lessee relationship was void or never happened, never existed. It's like our pidgin version of divorce, called annulment. This is the interpretation BCDA prefers as it would seem that the Arbitration panel's decision was really more like an annulment - the union never existed. Unlike a divorce, which recognizes the previous union but has declared the terms and conditions for the termination of the said union. And in any union/marriage there are products/children. Others interpret the Arbitration panel's decision as rescinding the contract - meaning that the contract was cancelled. This means everything that happened in between signing and canceling is still valid; hence the locators are well within their rights and should not be evicted. More on this later.
Squatters are better treated
From a purely techno-legal standpoint - the decision and the execution of the decision by a Baguio Court, plus the subsequent eviction notice by the Sheriff after the conditions of the arbitration are fulfilled - shows the flawless workings of the law and that BCDA's interpretation is the one being followed. But what the law did not take into account is the reality of 1,631 locators or sub-lessees if you will, who were in good faith. Judging by the terms and conditions of BCDA's eviction notice, informal settlers are better treated.
A real living community
These sub lessees range from lifetime foreign and local investors in retirement mansions, bi-annual vacation homes, retail enterprises, BPO, convention facilities, artisanal food, high-end retail, golf club, hotels and restaurants. These sub lessees committed to Camp John Hay for what they thought was a 25 year lease, renewable for another 25 years. Conceive Camp John Hay as another Ayala [or Megaworld] living and breathing resort and business community, with CJHDevCo as the village association that maintains physical plant and security and charges association dues - besides marketing for other locators - and you get the picture. And it worked. But if one were to heed the BCDA's preferred interpretation of the Arbitration decision, this living and breathing resort and business community never existed.
Might is right
The usually pro-active, can-do, pro-business BCDA of old is pursuing the decision with uncharacteristic tunnel vision of a collection agency law office. From a lawyer point of view, it is an open and shut case. CJHDevCo gets out, and everything standing on BCDA property is BCDA's. The same rationale also guides the option given to the 1,163 locators that are to be evicted. That option to eviction - a deed of assignment - is short of a pact to sell their souls to the devil - required locators to surrender all their rights to the BCDA without any certainty that they won't be evicted from their shop/house/resto/hotel/mansion. A foreign retiree/investor likened the BCDA option to the feudal age's indentured bondage of slaves.
Countdown to July 20
So far, all these hardened positions has ruined the investment potential of Camp John Hay for it seems that the investment of all the 1,163 locators have come to naught as they can be summarily driven out, without due compensation nor a workable option that considers the concept of "on-going concern". Besides the uncertainty of what happens beyond the expiry of the TRO on July 20, an even sadder note to all this is that the pleas to the executive and legislature by many of the influential and rich investors in those log mansions, BPO's and hotels keep falling on deaf ears or hog-tied hands.
Orphans of annulment
As in a marriage, whether annulled or divorced, things get complicated when there is collateral damage - children. In this case, 1,163 of them. But in most divorces/annulments, there is a battle for custody of the children but in this case, the surviving party prefers eviction. CJHDevCo, on the other hand, ceases to exist, as per the annulment as it is co-terminus with CJH. So we end up with an annulment that leaves a widow/widower - BCDA - who doesn't want children or will only accept them if they agree to terms that mean absolute slavery instead of kinship. What the children need are adoptive parents. It shouldn't be hard as they're such a productive bunch.
1,163 and more
Considering its recent track record, it may really be too much to ask the BCDA, for once, to undo its punitive victor's justice stand and look at the opportunity - business opportunity - not court vindication - that these already existing 1,163 investors/lessees means. These 1,163 investors/lessees is 1,163 less investors/lessees to convince and market to. The same 1,163 will be the magnet to other investors - who knows, maybe a multiple of 1,163 - as it proves that that BCDA is here to do business and is not out to pursue and annihilate those who displeases it. Certainly, dismissing the eviction of 1,163 investors as mere collateral damage, just part of the fog of war doesn't do the Philippine investment climate any favors. If it wasn't for CJH's tortured litigious past, not its fault, Ayala and Megaworld, like adoptive parents, should consider CJH as their next Nuvali/Anvaya or Southwoods, without the need to start from greenfield scratch.
Do a CJHDevCo
BCDA may loathe CJHDevCo but it is CJHDevCo that is the medium by which it can assert control of investment and expenditure decisions, along with the day-to-day functioning of this large leisure and business community. No one is more knowledgable than CJHDEvCo when it comes to the valuation of existing assets, contract terms and the provision of services for the CJH community. It is CJHDevCo that makes CJH an ongoing concern. Whether BCDA likes it or not, CJHDevCo is still the organization that will turn CJH around. Neutering CJHDevCo without making sure BCDA can do its functions is like an own goal.
The residents are not the enemy
What to do? If the government is serious about giving John Hay the success it deserves, then it must first withdraw its eviction notices and the onerous deed of assignment presented to locators as the BCDA's option to eviction. In fact, this hastily sent deed of assignment contract shows that BCDA had no contingency nor continuation plans that considered nurturing or building on what was accomplished at CJH as an on going concern. Then BCDA should act like CJHDevCo and recognize all existing lessee's contracts, work with them rather than treat them worse than squatters - like a widower who casts out her legitimate children, whether burden or not. Sure modify the lease, the rent or terms, but assume that is business as usual, as if nothing happened, except a change of owners/lessors. Yet this will mean everything for the thousands of employees at the hotels, shops and restaurants plus the residents who have made CJH their home.
What we are proposing is for a divorce with custody conditions rather than the arbitration panel's annulment. I believe this is possible since the arbitration panel did not enforce on BCDA that BCDA just evicts and not consider some compromise to save the "misled" 1,163 locators to keep CJH as an ongoing concern. Is it impossible for BCDA to reassess its interpretation of the Arbitration panels decision from "void" to "rescind"?
PPP to the rescue
Perhaps if the legal conflict or this anti-Sobrepena sentiment - considering his mixed record in real estate investment - wasn't so deep seated, investment funds or a possible PPP with a large upfront fee can be resorted to by the Palace, the last resort of appeal up the executive ladder. In order to recover BCDA's claim of unpaid rent from CJHDevCo. Existing investments made by CJHDevCo should also factor in the valuation. Construed as a PPP, who knows, bidders other than Ayala and Megaworld may come to the fore. An unpalatable option is the Balkanization that happened at BF Paranaque when Banco Filipino was first shuttered in the early 80s; the residents of several BF phases banded together to create their own pocket associations/fiefdoms to look after themselves. The worst is when tribal claimants overrun the less guarded areas and start cutting down what's left of the trees or burning them in the tradition of "kaingin".
The City speaketh
Recently, the City of Baguio has chimed in claiming that it has a right to reclaim CJH under conditions agreed to with BCDA prior to the creation of CJHDevCo. But before it can do that, BCDA has to first reclaim CJH from CJHDevCo, inventory it, before it can be turned over to the City. Owing to the poisonous nature of this problem, that will take thousands of court hours before such a decision can be effected. Meantime, what happens to CJH and its orphans?
Consider the jobless and the homeless
As for the Palace, perhaps, not many there share our emotional attachment to CJH in particular and Baguio in general. Being a flagship project of a past administration, not Cory's, we can understand why. None of the tycoons close to the Palace also show any interest considering the legal quagmire that BCDA got in. Unlike when the Palace interceded when BCDA security laid siege to the inauguration of SM Aura one rainy traffic clogged night. But at least, in their final year, the Palace can show some concern for the thousands of "orphaned" employees at the hotels, shops and restaurants plus the residents who have made CJH their home. Regardless of who is at fault and whatever the court decided - whether void or rescinded, a higher court of the afterlife will always rule in favor of a compassionate heart. Here is a living and breathing community that doesn't deserve to die, just because a marriage soured.