All is not well in the western city. Apart from the horrendous crime situation, especially with respect to murders and the infamous lotto scam, many business people are bemoaning the fact that they are seeing a downward plunge in their profit margins.
It was former mayor, the late Councillor Arthur Gilchrist, who declared during his tenure that Montego Bay had "a culture of informality". Not much has changed. Street vendors continue to dominate the roads; pedestrians and motorists compete daily for space while urban blight and prostitution of varying types have become all-pervasive.
All five constituencies in St James, namely, North West (Dr Horace Chang), Central (Lloyd B Smith), West Central (Sharon Ffolkes-Abrahams), East Central (Edmund Bartlett) and South (Derrick Kellier) in one way or another impact on Montego Bay and vice versa. Many constituents have to come into the tourism capital to do business, go to school, pay taxes, have fun, shop, work, etc. In this context, Montego Bay has several faces: it is the tourism capital, a regional city, a commercial city as well as the entertainment and sports capital of the west. Regrettably, over the years successive administrations have failed to come up with a comprehensive development plan to enable the city to realise its potential fully . A Crime and Economic Summit is the right place to start.
The latest information from the Urban Development Corporation is that the Development Plan for Montego Bay is slated to be ready by June 2013. Let me hope that between now and then there will be sufficient public consultation and stakeholder participation to ensure that citizens can comfortably buy into what, through an Act of Parliament, should ultimately become a Development Order.
Over several decades, Montego Bay has primarily survived from the underground economy. No one wants to bell the cat, but it is ganja, cocaine, money laundering, Ponzi schemes and the lotto scam that have pumped a great deal of money into the city's coffers from which just about every entity, whether formally or informally, has benefited directly from these ill-gotten gains. In most cases, whenever any of these "economic booms" have bellied up, then the city's economy goes into a tailspin. The current clampdown on the lotto scam has seen a drying-up of money flowing in the city, so many business operators are literally bawling. This means that a legitimate or illegitimate alternative must be found soon, one of which may well see an increase in criminal activity, as those who can no longer fund their hype lifestyle will have to turn on the society to satisfy their various wants and needs.
One interesting development which many business owners are bemoaning but are not willing to admit publicly is that the Falmouth Pier that has acted as a major economic catalyst in Trelawny is adversely affecting the Montego Bay economy. Fewer cruise ships and the fact that many tourism players have abandoned the western city for the Trelawny capital have left them wringing their hands. And in real terms, it can be argued successfully that the beleaguered city has not been able to maximise on the tourist dollars. The craft markets are not doing well, entertainment and dining out are limited in scope and downtown Montego Bay is suffering an urban blight that is fast becoming very frightening.
Areas such as Railway Lane, Barnett Lane, Hart Street, North Gully, Canterbury, etc, need urgent attention. Previously, a proposal by then Opposition Spokesman Dr Omar Davies had suggested that funds from the Tourism Enhancement Fund be used to improve conditions in the city, several inner-city and "capture land" communities. It is time to revisit that proposal which was embraced by the then Jamaica Labour Party administration. It may sound trite, but Montego Bay is sitting on a time bomb and if the appropriate socio-economic interventions are not done on a timely basis, then a scenario akin to the Christmas Rebellion, from which National Hero Samuel Sharpe emerged, may well present itself. There is already a growing tension between the indigenous Jamaican traders and the increasing number of Chinese nationals that are fast occupying most of downtown Montego Bay. Indeed, downtown is fast becoming China Town!
In the meantime, a determined and deliberate effort must be made to empower such budding entrepreneurs as those who operate shops and other business ventures in the People's Arcade. Government must seek to broaden the city's economic base and must pay attention to the small, medium and micro-business sector if all hell is not to break loose! Enough said.
Lloyd B Smith is a member of parliament and deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica.