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'I'm willing to help, says 'Butch'

Sandals boss would work with private group to develop Ian Fleming Airport

BY DESMOND ALLEN Executive Editor — Operations allend@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, January 18, 2013    

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GORDON 'Butch' Stewart is willing to work with a group of proven Jamaican businessmen and women to develop the Ian Fleming International Airport at Boscobel, St Mary.

But the Sandals International Resorts chairman has made it clear he'd only do so if necessary, as he wasn't looking to be personally involved in such a project, despite urging the Government to privatise the airport named after the world-famous author of the James Bond spy thrillers.

Stewart, two Thursdays ago, advised the Government to privatise the airport and immediately extend the runway to accommodate larger regional jets that would make travel much more convenient for citizens and tourists wanting to visit the northeastern end of the island.

He suggested that such a move would attract major airlines such as American Airlines, Air Canada, USAIR, Jet Blue and Delta, among others, and trigger unprecedented development of the Ocho Rios, Port Antonio, Highgate, Annotto Bay region and beyond.

"I need to make it clear that I am making these suggestions, not in the interest of Butch Stewart, but in the interest of all Jamaicans at a time when our economy needs new ideas," Stewart said in response to a call from politician Mike Henry, the former transport minister who presided over the modernisation of the Boscobel Aerodrome and change of name.

Henry believed that Stewart's call to develop the airport could be realised through a bond floated by successful businessmen, including Michael Lee Chin, who has ties to the east, Chris Blackwell and the Sandals chairman.

"While I am not at this time looking to become involved in such a project, I am willing to work, if necessary, with a group of proven, committed Jamaican business people to see it come to fruition, should the Government decide it would privatise the airport," said Stewart.

He said it was his understanding that the Roman Catholic Church, which owns some of the land on which an extended runway would have to cross, was willing to provide the access.

"I am a firm believer that the airport needs private sector management. I also have great confidence in the vast potential for development that would come with developing the Ian Fleming Airport. Ocho Rios is a massive bedroom community and I have reason to believe that large numbers of tourists who would come to Port Antonio and surrounding areas do not come because of the inconvenience of having to travel by road from Montego Bay."

But Stewart insisted he would not be interested in any partnership with Government to run the airport, as he had become very uncomfortable based on past experience working with governments.

He noted that it would suit the Government to privatise the Ian Fleming Airport as it was currently losing a lot of money.

"They'd have nothing to lose and taxpayers would not have to continue to bear those huge losses," said Stewart.

"The development of that region is long overdue and the people there really deserve better. We can do it. We just need to start thinking big once again," he said.

In a series of Jamaica Observer articles, Stewart, the newspaper's chairman, has been suggesting projects he called "low-hanging fruits" that the Government could invest in that were achievable in the short to medium terms. Yesterday, he raised the possibility of privatising the operations of the University of the West Indies to take it off the public purse and secure the future of the institution.

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