HISTORICAL legislative provisions protecting the right of indigent Jamaicans to access the healing waters of the Bath Fountain and Milk River mineral baths have become obstacles to the development of both attractions.
“The legislative stipulations suggest that you have to make special accommodation for the poor and indigent, things like that,” permanent secretary in the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment, Jennifer Griffith, told Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), Wednesday.
“The private sector could hardly do anything with Bath, based on the fact that it was bequeathed to the people… One provision which still exists on the books is that no pauper should be turned away,” former minister of tourism Edmund Bartlett, who currently chairs the PAAC, pointed out.
“And so, in fact, if you have a private investor investing sums of money, how do you accommodate these requirements?” Griffith wondered, as she tried to explain how the historical provisions in the Acts of Parliament covering the operation of the two baths has impeded divestment.
They were responding to Government MP and PAAC member Fitz Jackson, who asked why the two historic baths could not be developed and used to boost the appeal of local resorts.
“Do we amend the Acts, or do we try to find some way to accommodate? That is one of the issues to be resolved,” Griffith said.
The Milk River Bath Act, which protects the Clarendon attraction, states that it shall not be lawful to lease the property unless such lease contains adequate provisions for “the reception and accommodation of sick and infirm persons at such rates and charges as shall, from time to time, be approved by the minister”.
Tradition says both baths were used by slaves, between the 17th and 18th centuries, primarily to heal their wounds from brutal whippings. For example, the discovery of Bath Fountain in St Thomas was attributed to a runaway slave, Jacob, who was hiding from his master when he came upon the hot water spring. He returned to the plantation and told the master, Colonel Stanton, about it.
Stanton eventually sold the spring and adjoining 1,130 acres to the Government with certain conditions protecting the rights of indigents to use it. The discovery led to the development of the town of Bath and the Bath Botanical Gardens, the second oldest botanical garden in the Western Hemisphere.
However, efforts to protect the right of the poor and indigent to these resources seem to be crippling their growth as, while the Government is unable to fund their development it has not been able to attract private investors, who are against operating under the protective clauses.
Griffith said, however, that the problems are no longer limited to the legal provisions, as the infrastructure and utility services in and around the baths, including roads, light, water, and telephones, are very poor.
“Successful bidders say that Government has to fix all of these infrastructural problems before it would even make sense for us to invest their money in upgrading the properties,” she explained.
But, despite the challenges, she said that the baths remain a major economic base for the communities in which they exist.
“Such is the nature of those communities, so they do serve a purpose. The potential for them is enormous, but we have to look very seriously at policy here,” she concluded.