Iligan rising from the ashes

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ILIGAN CITY — This “former” industrial city of the South may have fallen hard with the demise of the giant National Steel Corp. in 1999 and a few other manufacturing industries. But local officials have learned their lesson well, and are now looking at ways to avoid another major fall in the future.

It appears that Iligan is now finally getting its acts together.

For one, Iligan now wants a more balanced economy. While its leaders are exerting efforts to have the NSC operate again, they are also looking into other directions, mainly tapping Iligan’s vast hinterlands for agriculture. Some efforts have also been made to make money out of tourism with Iligan’s various scenic attractions, its two dozen waterfalls among them that owned for itself the moniker “City of Waterfalls .”

For the first time, too, Iligan has finally recognized that development planning has to come from the people, particularly those in the barangays, and not from the higherups and imposed upon its constituents.

A boon and a bane

Iligan has been so lucky with industrialization, which came with the city’s conversion from a small municipality into a city in the 1950s. It started with the construction of Mindanao ‘s first hydroelectric plant at the foot of the majestic Maria Cristina Falls . Shortly after, heavy industries, attracted by the low electricity rates, arrived. Among them were a fertilizer plant, a giant steel mill, cement, chemical, flour industries and the coconut oil mills.

But Iligan’s economy relied too heavily on these industries, which brought in huge amounts of money in real property, business and other taxes. For decades, Iligan was among Mindanao ‘s richest cities.

But with the closure of NSC late in 1999, then a few other industries after that, Iligan’s balloon ruptured, sending its economy into disarray.

Sustainability

Now, Iligan wants a more sustainable economy. In fact, Mayor Franklin M. Quijano, a lawyer by profession but with a strong background in economics (he is an economics graduate and used to teach the subject while pursuing his law studies in Cebu), has initiated what he calls the Sustainable Integrated Area Development (SIAD) approach.

SIAD’s cornerstone, said the mayor, is the empowerment of the barangays. Thus, officials of Iligan’s 44 barangays are extensively involved in consultations. For the first time in Iligan’s history, the barangays are now working on their development plan.

It is still ongoing, but once completed, the barangay development plans will then be integrated into the city development plan, said Architect Gil Balondo, head of the City Planning and Development Office.

“It used to be that barangay officials ask for projects like basketball courts and waiting sheds,” Quijano said. “Now, they know better, they know what they really need to uplift their constituents’ lives,” the mayor noted.

With the active involvement of the barangays in charting Iligan’s future, one of the city’s initial projects towards that direction is the ongoing soil and water land resource evaluation.

Going agri

The study, which is being implemented by the Bureau of Soils and Water Management of the Department of Agriculture, is to help Iligan in its attempts to go into agriculture.

“We’re doing this so we would know what to plant where,” said city agriculturist Lano Confesor. “We check for fertility levels and see what plants are suited in a particular area,” he added.

He noted that before, Iligan really had not identified the agricultural areas so it did not know what to do.

But while the study’s results are yet to be presented to city officials, the latter have already initiated other agricultural projects.

“The mayor found the need for agriculture when he visited the hinterlands five years ago,” said City Councilor Orlando Maglinao, a former NSC executive who is now the mayor’s trusted partner in his economic endeavors.

Iligan has now gone into planting abaca, particularly in the hinterland barangays of Rogongon, Lanipao and Kalilangan. Thanks to the arrival of Newtech Pulp, a company that started its abaca operations in Albay and Leyte , Iligan farmers now have a sure market for the hemp.

Iligan is planning to cultivate up to 5,000 hectares of abaca plantation, but even this will not be enough for Newtech’s need to have 20,000 hectares nearby, Confesor said.

Luckily for Iligan, its tanggungon abaca variety is native to the area. “It’s already acclimatized, of good quality, and is in less danger of insect infestation, Confesor stressed.

Iligan has likewise encouraged the planting of coffee. In Barangay Panuruganan, the natives have been planting the robustia variety for a long time but only for local consumption as it had no market. But lately, the city has struck an agreement with Nestle Philippines to buy Iligan’s coffee. Nestle is even helping train the cooperatives involved in coffee plantations.

Farmers’ academy

Anticipating its boom in agriculture later on, Iligan has teamed with the college of agriculture of the Mindanao State University to come up with a revised curriculum leading to a bachelor’s science degree in agriculture.

Confesor said they have recruited the first batch of 25 high school graduates to take the course, who have been organized into a cooperative so they could immediately go into agricultural production and earn at the same time. Another batch of 25 will be recruited every year.

“It is very intensive on applications,” says Confesor of the course, which is supposed to be the first in the country.

Students can major into crop science, animal science, or food processing

The city government has agreed to subsidize the P1.5-million a year expense while MSU provided seven instructors from its campus in Marawi to be detailed in Iligan.

For now, the students are squatting at the Agricultural Trainings Institute’s compound in Barangay Hinaplanon, but Confesor said the city envisions a separate building for them.

Luring tourists

With its various scenic attractions — like its majestic waterfalls and enchanting caves — one would wonder why Iligan is not in the tourism map. Maybe simply because it is not consciously promoting tourism at all. This can be evidently seen in the fate of the City Tourism Office, which does not have a permanent office of its own, transferring from one building to another.

But despite the limitations, the tourism office has lately managed to step up campaigns to lure tourists to Iligan.

Two years ago, the tourism office helped form the “Tourism Triangle.” It is composed of three contiguous barangays — Buruun, Maria Cristina and Ditucalan — with a concentration of tourist spots. They are now helping each other promote tourism, pooling resources together.

Buruun has Mimbalut Falls, the dozen or so swimming pools at Timoga (where President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo spent her summers as a child in their ancestral home behind a creek); Maria Cristina has the waterfall bearing its name; while Ditucalan has the famous Tinago Falls, which is situated in a valley surrounded by tropical valley with a natural swimming lagoon the size of two Olympic-sized pools.

“For a long time, we hadn’t developed tourism because of our huge income from the industries,” said Buruun barangay captain Glen Quijoy. But with a number of his constituents now jobless because of NSC’s shutdown and the intermittent operation of the Maria Cristina Chemical Industries, “tourism has become our fallback position.”

At the swimming pools in Timoga alone, about 250 people have been gainfully employed, from managing and maintaining the swimming pools to selling lechon and other food stuff in the chain of restaurants situated right across the resorts.

Officials in the three barangays now actively join tourism conferences to help them in their efforts.

Going after taxes

With the money from the industries continually decreasing, the City Treasurer’s Office has been working overtime to generate more revenues.

One thing it did was to do a general revision of real property taxes last year. City treasurer Ernesto Balat said the last revision was in 1994 when ideally, it should be done every three years. The economic crisis in the late 1990s apparently prevented the city government from increasing real property taxes.

While it did raise a howl among taxpayers, the city government was nevertheless able to implement it and increased collection.

For instance, when NSC was still operating, Iligan’s real property tax reached a high of P179.5 million in 1998, according to data gathered by the Tax Revenue Assessment and Collection System of the City Treasurer’s Office. But after NSC’s demise, it dropped to P73 million in 2000. But with the restructuring of the real property taxes, collection increased to P109 million in 2002.

The treasurer’s office also implemented other programs like the BOSS, short for Business One-Stop Shop, where all agencies involved when opening a new business or renewing a business permit — like the treasurer’s office, the Department of Trade and Industry, Bureau of Internal Revenue, Social Security System, the Bureau of Fire Protection — are gathered in one place to fasttrack the processing of documents. Thus, it became easier for businessmen, at the same time generating earning more for the city.

Business firms having difficulties paying their taxes were also allowed to pay in installment. “Instead of pressuring them, we lightened their load,” Balat said.

Another source of revenue is Iligan’s collection from its water system. Since the 1970s, Iligan’s water rate was pegged at 50 centavos per cubic meter, the same for residential, commercial and industrial use. It was probably the country’s lowest.

Lately, the city “rationalized” its water rates. It now varies depending on the usage. For residential and government office use, minimum is P1.90 per cubic meter if consumption is slow. It goes up to P4 if you consume more than 50 cubic meters a month. Commercial rates start at P3.80 while for industrial use, at P5.70.

Balat claims it is still one of the lowest in the country.

Its implementation created quite a stir, too. But because of that, the city’s income from “economic enterprises” rose from P16.4 million in 1998 to P43.5 million in 2002.

Balat has some other things on his mind. Among them to implement an ordinance passed long ago that will charge more for idle lands so land owners will be forced to invest and make their lands productive. Yet another is to update classification of lands, so that the agricultural lands that have been converted to residential, and the residential that have gone commercial, will be assessed taxes commensurately.

Rejuvenating the industries

With its move toward agriculture, Iligan is not abandoning the industries at all.

Iligan’s leaders, Quijano and Maglinao included, are very upbeat these days that the mothballed NSC plant will be reopened before the May 2004 elections. In fact, an Indian company, the Global International Holding Ltd., held a press conference in Iligan early in December to announce that they have been given the go signal to rehabilitate and eventually operate the plant.

Officials of the National Steel Labor Union admitted there appears to have been an agreement between the government and the Indian firm. A board member of Naslu said he heard Trade and Industry Secretary Manuel Roxas saying that NIHL has been awarded the contract to run the plant, but that they are still fune-tuning the agreement.

“The GIHL is now interviewing former NSC employees that they will eventually hire,” said the union official. “The GIHL has hired contractuals to intensify evaluation of the machineries to so they could prepare the startup costs. But there’s no movement of machineries yet,” he added.

If indeed the news is true, it should be one big party for Iliganons.

Bernardo Roa, executive director of Iligan’s Investment Promotions Center , said they are actively seeking investors, either to invest directly, or have a joint venture with existing companies in Iligan.

He said they have knocked on the doors of the various embassies to showcase what Iligan has to offer.

“With this, we found out, for instance, that the coconut oil industry has big potentials,” Roa said.

The Netherlands , he noted, sources 80 percent of its coconut oil supply from the Philippines . The Russian Federation , too, has a very big demand for coconut oil. Roa said they have already set up links with the two oil mills here — Granex and the San Miguel-owned Iligan Coconut Oil Mill.

The economic crisis and globalization may have harmful effects on the local industries, but these also helped them modernize their facilities. Take the case of the Mabuhay Vinyl Corp., manufacturer of caustic soda and hydrochloric acid.

MVC recently completed construction of its P350-million “ion exchange membrane” plant that is set to be inaugurated on Nov. 27. It still produces the same products as MVC’s old plant, but it does it with more efficiency, savings and environment friendly.

“The economic crisis has taught us a lesson. We have to modernize and upgrade or die,” said Ramon Lapeña, MVC’s technical manager.

Ditto with the Iligan Cement Corp. in Barangay Kiwalan and the Alsons Cement Corp. in neighboring Lugait town, who recently upgraded their facilities in its efforts to compete with modern companies abroad.

Roa said they are also helping develop the micro and the small and medium enterprises with the assistance of the United Nations Industry Development Organization. “We wanted the micro industries to graduate into small, the small into medium industries, considering that 96 percent of business permit applicants are into SMEs,” he added.

A former United Nations volunteer, Roa is even looking at generating employment by sending skilled workers, of which Iligan has plenty, to East Timor to help in the reconstruction.

Infra projects

Iligan’s economy may be down, but it is lucky to have been recipients of various major infrastructure projects.

For instance, the national highway is being widened. From a narrow two-lane road, it is being upgraded into four lanes, some parts even as much as six lanes. Along with this is the expansion of the bridge crossing Iligan’s biggest river, Mandulog. It is vital because it links Iligan with Cagayan de Oro. Iligan also recently inaugurated an integrated bus and jeepney terminal costing over P100 million.

But a very encouraging development is the Gawad Kalinga Missionville, a housing project for the poor in Barangay Tibanga.

Mainly an initiative of the church-based Couples for Christ, the Iligan Missionville project has particularly generated a buzz. Forty-two houses were built in four months, with the city government pouring in only P500,000 of the P25 million development cost; the rest came from the private sector.

It benefitted mainly fire victims from neighboring Barangay Saray, who lost their houses on the eve of the Sept. 29 city fiesta in 2002.

“Had the government done all this, it could have taken it 10 years to complete this,” said Quijano, himself a CFC member.

He said if the “ bayanihan ” spirit of missionville could be replicated all over the country, it could give a big boost to the country’s cement industry and other firms involved in the construction business.

Indicators

Somehow, the small steps towards revitalizing Iligan’s economy have become evident with some little signs of progress.

Aside from the ongoing heavy infrastructure projects, one can also see a number of new houses being built in the subdivisions.

The old established restaurants like Sunburst and Patio Alejandra are still there, but a few other night spots have sprouted. Yuppies can now be seen at night at the Kima Arcade and Bat C’s, both in Pala-o, and at the small restaurants downtown along De Leon St .

ligan never really had a night life as grand as its neighbor, Cagayan de Oro, but now it is once again beginning to have one.

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