As Granada’s unhappy four-year experiment with a Sandinista municipal government fades into the past, this colonial city by the lake appears to be making a promising recovery under the new administration of Conservative Party Mayor Eulogio Mejía.
Just a year ago, Mejía inherited a mayor’s office that was bankrupt and broken, with workers on strike, bookkeeping in disarray and garbage piling up in the streets.
The municipal payroll, which had been fattened to an untenable level under the Sandinistas’ watch, represented 80 percent of city’s income, leaving no budget for development or even basic maintenance.
Of the eight projects that former Mayor Alvaro Chamorro promised during his 2004 campaign for mayor, none were accomplished (or even attempted). Chamorro was eventually forced to resign in disgrace two years into his term amid serious allegations of corruption and a government audit that revealed massive financial mismanagement.
The only thing the former mayor did achieve during his polemic term in office was to increase the city’s debt to unsustainable new heights (NT, March 9, 2007, Dec. 15, 2006).
When former Vice Mayor Rosalía Castrillo replaced Chamorro in March 2007, she said the situation she was stepping into was so dire that the best she could hope to do during the remaining two years in office was to try to renegotiate the city’s $850,000 debt and hand the next mayor a municipality in basic working order (NT, June 8, 2007).
But even that proved to be a tall order. When Mejía was sworn into office in January 2009, he essentially inherited a failed government.
“We had very big financial problems,” said Mejía, who last month completed his first year in office. “We had a municipality that had been declaring strikes regularly, to the point where they were on continual strike for the last trimester of 2008.”
However, the rice-farmer-turned-mayor said that within 48 hours of taking office he had negotiated a $110,000 loan from Bancentro to pay municipal workers their back pay and 2008 Christmas bonuses and put the government back to work.
From that point on, Granada has returned to a tenuous, yet basic, working order.
“There were no strikes last year; we normalized garbage pickup, repaired roads and bricked five kilometers of new road,” Mejía told The Nica Times in a recent interview.
Plus, he said, the mayor’s office got a new fleet of vehicles, a trash compactor and a mobile construction unit to build roads, which Mejía says remains the top demand in the rural communities of Granada.
The mayor’s office also built a five-kilometer road along the shore of Lake Cocibolca heading up to Malacatoya. He said the municipal government is currently seeking funds to pave an additional 10 kilometers, making it Granada’s own “coastal road.”
The new mayor, whose administration’s slogan is: “Because Granada is Worth the Trouble,” has also benefited from the confidence of foreign donors and taxpayers, who he claims have increased their contributions to municipal coffers despite last year’s economic crisis.
“There is more confidence among taxpayers now,” he said. “People say they are paying their taxes now because they see that the money is being reinvested in the city. So that has helped a lot.”
But the taxpayer giveth and he taketh away. Although the municipality increased tax collection on one front, it also lost the 1 percent tax revenue it used to receive for collection of energy bills.
“Now that money goes to the central government, so that represented a big loss (of revenue),” Mejía said.
Other than that, Mejía said, “Our relationship with the central government has been good.” He said the Ministry of Tourism has brought investors to Granada, and the government’s poverty fund (FISE) and the Nicaraguan Water and Sewage Company (ENACAL) have invested in public works in some of the poorer communities that still don’t have access to drinking water.
Foreign donors have also lent a hand to Granada, one of municipalities that was not contested in the fraud-marred 2008 elections.
The additional foreign income has allowed Granada to dream slightly bigger than just making payroll each month.
“The government of Germany was the first to lend us a shoulder to lean on, and the aid has been so great that we are about to open a new municipal office building to distribute the different offices of the alcaldia and offer better attention to the population,” Mejía said.
He explained that many of the municipality’s administrative offices will soon be relocated to the back of the old San Juan de Díos Hospital, to prevent congestion and lines in the mayor’s office.
Projects for 2010
While the transformation of Calle La Calzada into a pedestrian boulevard has given an important boost to Granada’s tourism sector – making it the “liveliest street in all of Nicaragua,” according to Mejía – several new projects scheduled for 2010 promise to further change the face of the city and diversify its tourist offering in the years to come.
The first project is called the “Xalteva Collection,” a project funded by the municipal government of Sevilla, Spain, to rehabilitate the old XaltevaPark and its historic walls, as well as build a new park in the adjacent plaza, currently an abandoned dirt lot occasionally occupied by a circus. The XaltevaPlaza will be landscaped and equipped with walking paths, benches, streets lamps and an amphitheater for cultural events, Mejía said.
The mayor said he traveled to Sevilla last year to present the plans and received a positive response. “I asked for a vote of confidence in the new government by explaining how we are turning things around.”
The Spanish authorities visited Granada last month and approved the architectural plans and gave the go ahead to start the project this year. Mejía expects construction to begin in the next couple of months.
“It will be another tourist attraction in the city to give Granada more life, just like Calle La Calzada,” Mejía said.
Another project soon to get underway is the conversion of the old fort at Granada’s municipal pier into a tourism center with lake-front bars, restaurants and artisan shops.
The old fort is a piece of Granada’s historic patrimony that was recently given back to the municipality after being under the control of the central government for years.
Mejía said his administration is also in talks with a private U.S. investor to build a mirador overlooking the Laguna de Apoyo, only three kilometers from down town Granada.
“Granada owns 60 percent of the lagoon rim, and we haven’t done anything with it,” the mayor said. “Right now we are in talks, but the will exists to build a mirador on Granada’s side to keep tourists in town longer.”
The biggest project about to get underway in Granada is less glamorous, but ultimately more important to the city’s sustainability: a $23 million sewage and water-treatment project that will dramatically reduce the pollution of LakeCocibolca.
The project, funded by Japan, Germany and ENACAL, will begin in July and require digging up the streets to connect the city to the sewage system. Currently, only 20 percent of Granada is connected to the sewer system. When the project is done, 80 to 90 percent of the city will be connected.
“Breaking up the roads to install tubing is going to be a problem, but it will result in a great benefit to the city – we’ll stop contaminating the lake, which is a great source of beauty but also a great responsibility,” Mejía said.
For a city looking to tourism for its future, the sewer project could be one of the most important advances of the year.
After all, what good are new waterfront restaurants and a “coastal drive” if the lake is polluted?