MANILA, December 15, 2003  (STAR) By Wilson Lee Flores - Amidst the nonstop bleak news on politics and crime dominating the headlines, there is still good news and hope in the Philippine economy. It is the matter of rugged and bold entrepreneurs of the private sector continuing to invest in progressive enterprises and defying the negative sentiments created by the shortcomings of our political leaders.

When President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo recently flew by helicopter to inaugurate the 30-hectare Plantation Hills residential farm development in Tagaytay, she witnessed the continuous long-range development of Tagaytay Highlands, an upscale mountain resort. This was being undertaken with the financial backing of rags-to-riches billionaire Henry Sy Sr. and the effort of young businessman Willy N. Ocier, among others.

Ocier recounted that it was in July ‘89 when he invited Sy and his eldest son Henry "Big Boy" Sy Jr. to the then-Palace in the Sky in Tagaytay to view the vast raw land that he had just acquired. Big Boy told Ocier half-jokingly at the sight of the mountain ridge, "Nice property, Willy! We can plant lots of pineapples here!" Hectares Of Paradise, Thousands Of Jobs For Three Provinces After 14 years, the people of Belle Corporation have planted more than pineapples in Tagaytay Highlands, creating two wondrous golf courses, the country’s first and only passenger cable car system, Swiss-style chalets, Spanish villas, Japanese-engineered hillside lake-view condominiums, North American log cabins, a Chinese Summer Palace, sports and entertainment facilities, and restaurants.

More majestic and awe-inspiring than any of Sy’s massive SM malls nationwide, the 1,200-hectares mountain resort in Tagaytay has become an oasis of excellence and a showcase of bold Filipino private enterprise. Henry Sy said that Belle Corporation, Highlands Prime Inc. and the Highlands Clubs are committed in planting one million trees over the next 50 years in the whole area, using species such as Norfolk and Benguet pine trees, mahogany, mango, acacia, flame, and narra, among other trees.

Described as "an agricultural project showcasing the promotion of a balanced ecological system in the country," the Plantation Hills that GMA inaugurated is a residential farm development situated approximately 2.56 kilometers east of Tagaytay Midlands Golf Club. Incidentally, Tagaytay has been a favorite recreational area for two former presidents during their tenure in power – Joseph Estrada and Fidel V. Ramos.

Belle Corporation vice chairman and Tagaytay Highlands chairman Willy Ocier said, "Our Tagaytay Highlands golf course was inaugurated in April ‘94 by then President Ramos and the King of Malaysia. The course has since enjoyed cult status among our members who enjoy it alternately with our equally famous Tagaytay Midlands Golf Course. Belle Corporation will celebrate the 10th year of the Highlands next year. Envisioned and constructed by Filipino ingenuity and engineering expertise, our project has generated employment in the Cavite, Batangas and Laguna countryside. Tagaytay Highlands consists of 1,200 contiguous hectares located in these three provinces."

He added, "With all these blessings, we have promised to give back to nature what has been given us. Plantation Hills Farm Subdivision is our contribution to the environment – to promote ecological balance by primarily encouraging its homeowners to engage in organic farming, vermiculture and embark a zero-waste management program which is a big contribution in protecting Mother Earth and securing the future of the youth. We thank all those who have worked hard in making Plantation Hills and Flowerside Farm into this wonderful reality." ‘More Investments,’ Urged Gma President GMA at the Lakeview House told Henry Sy, Ocier and the other business leaders behind the Tagaytay Highlands to build and develop more environment-friendly and privately funded projects to initiate Philippine economic growth. She mentioned that during her visit to Baguio to attend the Ad Congress last Nov. 21, she said that people in the whole city were excited about the opening of the SM mall there. GMA added that she wasn’t able to grace the SM opening that day because she had to visit a farming community in nearby Trinidad Valley.

Apart from GMA, Secretary Dodie Limcaoco, Tagaytay City Mayor Francis Tolentino, Tanauan City Mayor Fred Corona, Talisay Mayor Florencio Manimtim, the other VIPs of Belle Corporation that afternoon was the delegation of Chinese political leaders led by the lady vice governor of Fujian province who also flew in by helicopters lent to them by PAL chairman Lucio C. Tan. (Though Fujian has about half the population of the Philippines, its booming economy has been described as an economic miracle.)

Welcoming the special guests were Belle Corp. vice chairman Willy Ocier; Belle Corporation vice chairman Hans Sy; club president and Mega Magazine Group boss Jerry Tiu; and Banco de Oro Universal Bank president Teresita "Tessie" Sy-Coson. Joining them in inaugurating Plantation Hills were club members and their families such as former Urban Bank boss Arsenio "Archit" Bartolome, former Finance Secretary Vicente "Ting" Jayme, Jacinto Ng Jr. of Rebisco and many others.

After the inauguration ceremony, the President had a private dinner at Tagaytay Highlands’ China Palace, where Sy and his family tendered a welcome luncheon earlier that day for the Fujian delegation. GMA also attended the RJ Jacinto and Spirit of ’67 concert in the same venue right after dinner. The President rested that night at Tagaytay Highlands, with 100 security personnel from the Presidential Security Group (PSG) and two Belgian Mallinois dogs around the whole complex. Preventing Foreclosure And Cutting Up Tagaytay Highlands While the President toured the vegetable harvest model farm and later harvested fresh cabbage, spaghetti squash, and lettuce in an organic demonstration farm, Henry Sy recounted how the publicly-listed developer Belle Corporation was weighed down by huge debts, that creditors were about to foreclose on Tagaytay Highlands to cut it up into different parcels, when he decided to purchase and save it. GMA later joined 25 members of the Plantation Hills Women’s Club in the planting of molave, dapdap and acacia tree saplings.

A few years ago, the publicly listed developer Belle Corporation was the subject of a bitter high-profile corporate war between the groups of Willy Ocier and former Trade & Industry Minister Roberto "Bobby" Ongpin. Before Henry Sy’s purchase of the massive Tagaytay Highlands project in April 2002, Belle Corporation had debt of US$150 million in floating rate notes and another P1 billion in peso debt, or a total then of more than P7 billion pesos in debt owed to local banks, Deutsche Bank and international bond-holders.

Sy pointed to the breathtaking scenery of Tagaytay Highlands, saying, "If such a wonderful place was located in China, the national government there would have proclaimed it a national treasure, preserved it, invested and developed it as a major tourist destination. My investment in Tagaytay Highlands is not for business profits, but due to my sincere wish to leave a great legacy of a truly world-class resort and leisure development for the Philippines. Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the US, I had several big foreign investor groups interested in joining me in the development of the Tagaytay Highlands, but after this tragedy, none came. I had to bring in capital on my own and I am committed to support this project of extraordinary beauty."

Commenting on her father’s saving of Tagaytay Highlands as well as the recent opening of SM malls in Baguio City and in Marilao, Bulacan, Tessie Sy-Coson said, "Whatever the volatile political or economic conditions of the Philippines, our family and group continue to make long-term investments to support national economic and social development. We will continue to invest. We shall continue to work hard in creating more enterprises. We should keep faith in the Philippine future."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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