As much as I wanted to meet every one of you in the flesh as I deliver the State of the Zone Address, it is unfortunate that we have to settle for this virtual meeting, mediated by the tools of 21st-century communications technology amid the continuing coronavirus threat.
I regard this year as symbolic of a dramatic transition in the 27-year history of the agency.
Even though we don’t stand on a grand stage in CEZA’s Santa Ana compound towered by the modern CEZA Commercial Center and CEZA Corporate Center, the message that underpins our celebration is clear and unmistakable:
The state of the Cagayan Special Economic Zone and Freeport is strong. It is ready to take on the challenges and exploit the opportunities of the post-pandemic economy.
There was a time though when the Freeport seemed like a rickety ship lost, and without a compass, in stormy seas.
I remember my first visit to Santa Ana as Administrator and CEO, in late July of 2017, when I ventured out to Port Irene, curious to discover evidence of why it was touted as the jewel of the Cagayan Freeport.
Even from a distance, the view that greeted me made my heart sink. I was gazing at a port in advanced state of disrepair, its breakwater broken in many parts, which conveyed to me a sense of terrible waste because of its unrealized potential.
So, during the past four or so years, bubbling with ideas of innovation, we employed the best of our talent and skills, mobilized what could be spared from our resources, and came up with a redevelopment plan to rescue the Freeport from dilapidation and revive its fortunes.
Today, the result is dramatic. CEZA has broken the cycle of underdevelopment that characterized its past. And CEZA is now poised to take advantage of its strategic location of being the closest freeport to the major cities of East Asia, and the closest freeport to the Russian Far East and the U. S. West Coast.
Today, if you venture out to the northside of Santa Ana, gleaming Port Irene, symbolically the heart of the Cagayan Freeport, comes into view with its retrofitted pier and warehouses. Its rebirth is a subplot to the Freeport’s bigger transformation. which places it squarely on the path to full-scale development.
Drive for innovation and reform
It is the compulsion for innovation that has elevated CEZA to the organization it is now.
It is also what will transform the Cagayan Freeport into a state-of-the-art global metropolis.
This is what this State of the Zone Address is about, to announce the strides we have taken towards our goal, and to call on our stakeholders to engage and partake in CEZA’s efforts.
When I took on the role of Administrator and CEO, I saw at once the wasted potential of the Freeport. The development that should have benefitted the townsfolk of Sta. Ana was funneled only to a fortunate few.
I vowed to change all that.
I embarked on an audacious plan to mold the organization, equip it for a technology-driven market economy and transform Sta. Ana’s landscape with modern infrastructure that would bring in the investors and workforce needed to spur the economic vitality that the municipality is owed.
CEZA is now ready to serve. CEZA is now ready to grow.
The need to diversify
Back in 2017, CEZA only had 92 registered enterprises mostly involved in online casinos.
I saw the need to diversify and expand CEZA’s industry portfolio. We engaged into the new and exciting world of blockchain and financial technology in demonstrating CEZA’s unique jurisdiction in Sta. Ana as well as its capability for business innovation.
We only allotted 26 principal licenses, and all were awarded in less than a year. We managed to turn this around with up to 23 percent annual increase in registration. With 137 registered enterprises in financial technology, it is now the top industry in our portfolio, and the Cagayan Freeport is now known as the Silicon Valley of Asia.
We have also enhanced the diversity of our locators in logistics and manufacturing companies. The investors’ interest came with its own share of challenges. One is the lack of infrastructure to support their operations.
Building modern infrastructure
So, in line with President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” Program, we embarked on our own aggressive infrastructure development program. Many of them have now been realized as CEZA perseveres to fulfill its mandate to generate investments, to develop and invigorate the Cagayan Freeport, and to provide excellent services to its stakeholders, clients and partners.
CEZA has completed its Multi-Purpose building in the regional seat of government in Tuguegarao City.
The 8000-sqm CEZA Commercial Center, in Sta. Ana’s business district, is ready for occupancy, and our CEZA Corporate Center is set to follow in March this year. Not only equipped with internet connectivity, these two modern three-storey buildings are also designed for firms engaged in cutting-edge, digital-based financial technology solutions and other business solutions to provide them with support for their operations.
With a total floor area of 5,040 sqm, the CEZA Corporate Center will become our new operations center. We are making our frontline services and support operations more accessible and convenient. And to provide ease of doing business for all our stakeholders, we intend to partner with other agencies such as the Bureau of Immigration, the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Bureau of Customs to set up satellite offices for seamless business facilitation of CEZA locators.
The CEZA Corporate Center will also have a leasable area for businesses looking to provide services in what will be a high-traffic business area. Already, the second biggest universal bank in the country, Landbank of the Philippines, has opened its Sta. Ana branch on our building’s first floor.
Another perk of establishing office in the CEZA Business District is the view of the neighboring 350-yard CEZA Driving Range and 3-Hole Golf Course.
On the northside of the Cagayan Freeport is Port Irene. We have retrofitted the pier in order to strengthen the supporting structure and also accommodate larger vessels from just 8,000 GRT to 15,000 GRT. To ease the flow of loading trucks, we have constructed an additional road and bridge to the pier, thus providing port operators more efficiency in logistics. Furthermore, three four-unit warehouses with offices offering a total area of 16,000 sqm are now available.
The smaller San Vicente Port also received a big upgrade with the new 100-meter causeway. Now, larger marine passenger vessels can dock and accommodate passengers bound for the beautiful beach and island destinations of Northern Philippines.
More flagship projects in the pipeline
As impressive as these projects are, they are just among 19 flagship projects identified by CEZA and its private partners. In the Freeport’s newly crafted Master Development Plan, five districts, each with distinct characteristics, will emerge in the Cagayan Freeport. These are the San Vicente Resort District, San Vicente Marina District, the Centro District, The Port District and the Sinago District. The identification of the five districts is the result of an extensive study for the optimal land use of the Cagayan Freeport.
Tangent to this, CEZA has embarked on feasibility studies for major projects, among them the Palaui Island Eco-Tourism Park, Nangaramoan Eco-Tourism Park, the Mapurao Township, CEZA Global City, the CEZA Coastal Boulevard and the CEZA Expo, Convention and Sport Center.
Easily the most exciting is the Eco-Tourism Park, 200-hectare development on the 8000-hectare Palaui Island just the coast of Sta. Ana. The park will offer adventure and leisure activities, but the protection of Palaui’s natural environment, with its breathtaking landscape and seascape, will be of primordial importance even as this project aims to bring in more tourists, create jobs for residents, and provide an abundance of opportunities for the businessfolk of Sta. Ana.
Just as appealing is the Nangaramoan Beach development, a 50-hectare well-balanced forest and coastal ecosystem designed to boost tourism and provide sustainable community livelihood.
Probably the most ambitious project of them all is the Mapurao Township, a seaside-overlook smart city development nestled at the edge of the Sierra Madre in Barangay San Vicente. Some leading designers from Italy and Singapore are working on a modern architectural and land use design that, we believe, will turn this project—to be named Polaris City after the North Star—into a game-changer. It has the potential to dramatically shift the perception of work, living and leisure environments into a well-integrated and pleasant ecosystem.
Another completed feasibility study is a 15-hectare commercial center in Barangay Rapuli to be called CEZA Global City. It will be the future home of CEZA-licensed companies engaged in blockchain and financial technology. Its main features will be specialized infrastructure for technology, such as the blockchain incubation base, Artificial Intelligence research, robotics and big data aggregation, and will have tourism and leisure facilities such as a Convention Center, shopping center, 5-star hotels and boutique resort-villas.
The CEZA Coastal Boulevard’s main feature is a 20- kilometer boardwalk which will have multiple functions: an easement zone for the western Sta. Ana coast, a pathway for sustainable transportation such as bicycles and electric scooters, and a wellness activities park.
The CEZA Convention/Expo and Convention Center, to be located on a 9.8-hectare greenfield property, is a project under CEZA’s urban development thrust for its Freeport properties. This is meant to contribute to the socio-cultural and recreational needs of the rapidly urbanizing town of Sta Ana. It is envisioned with a coliseum and track and field stadium, and an Expo center, among others.
Consolidated Luzon Business Solution, Inc, a private partner, is also building a mixed-use development facility adjacent to the Commercial and Corporate Center. Private sector initiatives have been crucial in the growth of the Cagayan Freeport. Among them is that of Foremost Cagayan Leisure and Resort Corporation. The mixed-use project will encompass 1,200 hectares of urban development dedicated to fintech firms. A 10-hectare cyberpark has been erected, and groundworks are being undertaken for the initial 60 hectares of development, which includes an airport to accommodate direct international flights to and from the Freeport.
Another major private sector initiative is the 21-hectare Alpha Palawig Mixed-Use development intended for leisure and entertainment activities.
With these infrastructure developments, coupled with CEZA’s ability to issue licenses for blockchain and allied operations, we believe that the road to cutting-edge technologies, which characterize the fourth industrial revolution, will lead to the Cagayan Freeport.
All these aggregated together shall shape the CEZA of the future we have all envisioned.