NEW YORK, USA — Support for the tourism sector's proposal for an extension of the runway at the Ian Fleming Airport in St Mary to accommodate commercial flights is receiving considerable support among Jamaicans here.
There was agreement among those interviewed, even some with reservations, that the proposal, if implemented, would open up employment opportunities for the north-east region of the country, reduce travel time for tourists and nationals, and add other badly needed development to the area.
Peter McKenzie, who is vice-president of the Ex-Correctional Officers Association of Jamaica, a non-profit body, described the proposal as "an excellent one".
The St Ann native reasoned that improving the airport to allow commercial flights "would bring a tremendous boost to the area".
But it is the prospect for employment opportunities from the extension that most excites McKenzie.
He said that every employment opportunity should be taken seriously and pursued.
Roy Davidson, president of the National Association of Jamaica and Supportive Organisations (NAJASO), also threw his support behind the proposal, arguing that anything to generate employment and reduce travel time and costs "can only be beneficial, especially to a part of the country where the need is a bit more challenging than other sections".
The airport — named in honour of late British author and journalist Ian Fleming, who created James Bond — already has Customs and Immigration service. The current runway is 4,780 feet long.
Tourism interests, including Sandals Chairman Gordon 'Butch' Stewart and GeeJam founder Jon Baker have argued that adding another 1,000 feet of pavement could accommodate commercial airlines — with a maximum passenger capacity of 100 — flying directly to the St Mary airport from as far north as New York, while planes from South American countries, like Colombia, and any Caribbean point of origin could land there.
However, Airports Authority of Jamaica President Earl Richards says there is no space for building an extension.
"The runway is maxed out at the moment... so in order to extend the runway, one would have to go across the north coast highway or realign the highway in that section," Richards told the Jamaica Observer earlier this month.
But former transport minister in the previous Jamaica Labour Party Government Mike Henry says there is land that can be acquired to extend the runway, some of it owned by the Roman Catholic Church. Henry also proposed that a bond to develop the airport be issued.
Last week, Jamaican businessman Audley Sylvester expressed hope that the proposal "will be acted upon without much delay".
He said that he agreed with the opinion that if the airport was able to accommodate commercial flights it would potentially open up a whole gateway to development and job creation stretching from Ocho Rios to Port Antonio.
Sylvester, who was born in St Mary, was enthusiastic about the prospects of a likely spin-off in agricultural expansion.
Claudette Powell, who heads the Jamaica Nurses Group of New York, said she too welcomes and supports the idea.
Massachusetts-based school employee Ivy Grossett said she hopes the "proposal will bear fruit", as it would considerably ease the travelling time when she visits her homeland.
The idea has also generated support from Dr Sue Davis, who heads the Diaspora Board for the Southern United States. School custodian Dwight Bailey has also welcomed the proposal as an idea that should be considered.
But not everyone is totally enthusiastic about the idea.
Irwin Clare, while offering support, cautioned that "all efforts should be made to ensure that such a plan is fiscally prudent".
Clare, who heads the Diaspora Board for the north-east United States, pointed to the Montego Bay Convention Centre which he said does not seem to be attracting the level of business which was envisioned when it was built.
Another community leader, Patrick Beckford, was not so sure that the idea was relevant at this time, given the fiscal challenges facing Jamaica. He cautioned, therefore, that "we need to prioritise our interests".
The Ian Fleming Airport was opened in January 2011 amidst much fanfare and controversy. After the sign at the entrance to the former Boscobel Aerodrome was defaced at least twice, residents of the small community said they were not happy with the new name and that the vandalism was a sign of protest.
However, then Prime Minister Bruce Golding explained that the name was chosen because Fleming, through his James Bond novels, gave Jamaica an image much larger than it would otherwise have had.
"We also considered that the market to which we are appealing is a market to which the name Ian Fleming would have some resonance," Golding added.