Tons of sterile ash and debris spewed from Mount Pinatubo in Zambales on June 15, 1991 were borne by winds that made the colors of sunsets worldwide—as reports have it-- more intense, even brighter; the eruption buried San Simon town in Pampanga in flood-borne lahar that rendered hectare upon hectare of farmlands, pastures and livestock production areas of Central Luzon into barren ghost towns where only sturdy stands of cane grass (talahib) struggled to sprout forth, fight for life.
Productive activity ground to a dead halt in San Simon, as farmers had to seek out other means of livelihood to keep their families fed, their fading hopes kept alive. Jobs proved scarce, unemployment was rising and so was the crime rate.
Misery-wracked years crawled into decades, but despite its strategic location just along the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX), the hoped-for rebound of San Simon that was emerging as Steel Capital of the Philippines seemed a mirage upon the lahar-ravaged stretches of land.
But hopes were kindled anew in 2010 with the assumption into office of San Simon Mayor Leonora C. Wong. Using her executive savvy gained from years of corporate work, she made it her mission to turn things around for the people of San Simon. “I wanted San Simon to be a progressive town where people are productive. I wanted to provide jobs because unemployment was a problem and that could only be achieved by more businesses in our town,” she said.
“The only thing tragedy gives us is the opportunity to rebuild our lives,” asserted author Paolo Coelho, and Wong has seen ahead and seized such opportunity for her hometown.
But first, Wong said, she had to make San Simon conducive to business. “I had to address the rebels here who would make things hard for businessmen. So I talked to them and they agreed that they will cooperate for the people of San Simon,” she noted.
With the problem on the rebels addressed, she had to provide land development for businesses. “We had so many land rendered uncultivable because of lahar so I thought why not convert them into industrial land so we can put up industrial parks here?” she mused.
She also made it easier for investors to do business in San Simon by reducing red tape and making all transactions in the town hall computerized.
“I made sure we were business friendly because as a corporate person, I knew that was what businesses looked for – the ease of doing business. They can apply for permits online and they can have their permits in just a few minutes. In fact, all our services from real estate to social services are all computerized so people don’t have a hard time dealing with us. We make it easy for them using our own system and that’s when things turned around for San Simon,” Wong stated.
Indeed it has.
Seven years after her first assumption as mayor and now on her last term, Wong had managed to do the unimaginable in San Simon. Today, San Simon has numerous steel factories and other manufacturing business. San Simon is poised to be the Steel Capital of the Philippines with the many steel plants now doing business in the municipality. Based on the most recent statistics, 60 percent of the country’s local production of steel billets was produced in San Simon.
It has not just one but two industrial parks – the San Simon Industrial Park, which houses 66 establishments and Global 1. A third industrial park is underway as it is just awaiting the approval of its permits and paperwork from the Departments of Agriculture and Environment and Natural Resources.
With the transformation of San Simon, they have managed to provide employment opportunities for all residents in the town several thousands more will be created once the industrial parks are fully operational, she added.
“Those who remain unemployed here are the lazy ones but all else have something for them because of the many activities here. Crime rate is down and basically we have a robust economy here,” Wong said.
Wong also credited former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to the development of San Simon because it was she who provided the infrastructure that paved the way to making San Simon a better alternative to Valenzuela, Metro Manila for big businesses.
“During her administration, President Arroyo built the W road network, which connected Pampanga to Bulacan, Nueva Ecija and Metro Manila. San Simon was one of the recipients of such road network since made it accessible for businesses coming to and from Luzon to Metro Manila and vice versa,” she stated.
With the assumption of President Rodrigo Duterte, the future is even brighter for San Simon with the influx of more businesses expressing their intention of doing business in her town.
“We are very happy because we have a lot of applications for business especially now that President Duterte is our president. We can see that they determined to do business here and we are all excited to have them here,” she pointed out.
But with the influx of investment, Wong pointed out it also comes with many challenges. “Our roads have to be ready for the arrival of more businesses here. Also flooding is still a concern that should be dealt with. Infrastructure development is key which is the reason why we are appealing to the national government to help us get ready for these investments,” she said.
Indeed, local government units and even the national government could learn a thing or two from San Simon. A third class municipality showing how things should be done in this day and age – competitive, driven, service-oriented but still people-centered.
Like the sturdy talahib stands of San Simon that struggled on to sprout forth and grow stronger amidst barrenness, anyone can rise above the ashes to inspire others to set the pace, even set the standard in nation-building.
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