Montego Bay — a city making progress in some areas, but struggling in others

BY MARK CUMMINGS Editor-at-Large Western Bureau cummings@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, May 17, 2015

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MONTEGO BAY, St James — Montego Bay has long had an uneasy relationship with Kingston, asserting consistently that its development has been held ransom to decisions made by the island's capital, 125 miles away.

Often, the passion is understandable -- Montego Bay is filthy in some sections, but thriving in several other areas.

Its leaders, mainly those in business and tourism, have often complained that enough of the taxes generated in the resort town are not being placed in the hands of the city's authorities for further development of the St James capital.

They made the complaints when Montego Bay was still a tourism 'town'; they made them almost 35 years ago when its city status became enshrined in law.

Its status, many civic and political leaders agree, is a designation in name only.

Mark Kerr-Jarrett, a former president of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, argues that the city lacks autonomy.

He believes that the establishment of a municipal court, for example, would provide order and much- needed revenue to tackle the social ills of the city.

"That municipal court would provide a revenue stream from the enforcement of the Public Health and Public Order Ordinances, so Central Government won't have to be thinking that we are going to box something out of their mouth," stated the prominent businessman and developer, whose family name is synonymous with large land holdings in the city.

He nevertheless commended Mayor of Montego Bay Glendon Harris and his team for "doing a very, very good job with whatever they got".

"But can you imagine what they could do if they were properly funded?" he asked.

The city also stands out in its peculiar history, having held city status some 135 years ago. That status was later revoked, under colonial rule.

The 1980 proclamation, then, would have been a re-instatement of status.

The city stretches from Rose Hall at the eastern section to Great River heading west, and for tourism purposes, often Round Hill, which is located in Hopewell, Hanover, is associated with Montego Bay, the island's 'tourist capital', which makes a significant contribution to the national economy.

It is the home of Jamaica's and the Caribbean's largest airport, Sangster International, and as such is the gateway to most of the island's tourist visitors whose spend significantly boosts the current accounts component of the balance of payments.

According to figures released by the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment, last year Jamaica welcomed over 3.5 million visitors to the island, a 3.6 per cent increase over 2013.

Gross earnings from the sector in 2014 stood at US$ 2.1 billion, which translates to a 5.8 per cent increase over the previous year, the ministry said.

Montego Bay has no direct access to the tourism dollar, a long-time sore point for city leaders, who say funds that ought to be dedicated to improving the city's aesthetic and hospitality product are diluted throughout the country, leading over time to a denigration of the resort.

The city is often criticised for its ramshackle appearance, with piles of garbage along some streets the norm, and clogged drains and overflowing gullies a standard feature.

But, despite the lack of resources, Harris, who was appointed mayor just over three years ago, told the Sunday Observer that efforts are being made to improve the cleanliness and aesthetics of city.

"The demands are great... garbage collection, street lights, road repairs, water, public security... and there is just not enough resources to tackle all of these things, but we are trying our best," he emphasised.

He disclosed that four litter wardens will be deployed across the city soon to bolster the work of the roughly 20 municipal police, in an effort to assist in the maintenance of law and order.

"Those litter wardens will concentrate solely on enforcing the Anti-Litter Act," he stressed.

He noted that under the city's 'Clean as a Whistle' programme, 10 disposal units were recently acquired at a cost of $2.5 million, garbage trucks have been repaired at a similar cost, adding that a public education campaign is ongoing, as part of the initiative to promote cleanliness.

"We are also on the brink of launching the Community Pride Partnership programme where we will work with the communities," he said.

"We are hoping that we will start that on Labour Day and continue on weekends, when we, along with the citizens' associations, will cut and clean up the community spaces with a view of lifting the minds of our residents, so they can be a part of keeping the entire parish of St James clean and tidy."

According to Mayor Harris, several other beautification projects have been launched across the city.

"We have been planting trees and flowers along several roadways, including Bogue and Fairfield. We have been painting the kerb walls, washing sections of the city every two weeks, carried out work on the historic Dome... so the overall aesthetics have been improved," he argued, adding that plans are afoot to upgrade sidewalks across the city, estimated to cost roughly $7 million.

But still, Gloria Henry, the newly elected president of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, believes that more needs to be done to improve the physical state of the city, particularly Gloucester Avenue, better known as the 'Hip Strip,' where there are about 1,200 hotel rooms that have remained closed for several years.

"In terms of the physical state [of Montego Bay], this is now a key and important area that we will have to put on the agenda very quickly. I know that much work is needed to clean up some areas and rescue them before they fall apart completely. So, it will have to be a holistic approach -- engaging all stakeholders from the policymakers to the motorists to the guys selling bag juice to the corner," she explained.

Henry, who is the second woman president of the 83-year-old chamber, argues that much more could have been achieved since Montego Bay was granted city status in 1980.

"There is a lot of room for improvement in Montego Bay. In fact, there are opportunities that are still untapped," she emphasised.

"We talk about the creative industries -- sport and culture -- we have a new cultural centre in Montego Bay, providing excellent opportunities for our artistes here in Montego Bay, and the cultural centre is still untapped in terms of its capabilities to expand tourism opportunities in Montego Bay," added Henry.

She noted that the Greater Montego Bay Redevelopment Plan -- created more than 15 years ago -- "seemed not to have informed current developments of the city".

"I believe that it was an excellent plan that was put forward and I don't think that it is part of the conversation for current development, so we are going to need to engage with the development partners in the city to look at where we are now and where we want to go in terms of development," she explained.

The plan, completed at a cost of $9 million, was spawned out of the Greater Montego Bay Redevelopment Committee (GMRC), an umbrella group aimed at moving the city's development forward in an orderly manner.

It had envisioned a city of prosperous neighbourhoods, zoned areas for residence and commerce, a city rebuilt on order and respect for space.

Developer Arlene Dixon, its pioneering creator, has since died, but her dream was marred by infighting in the city, as well as hurdles at the central planning authority -- in Kingston.

Following her death, efforts were made to revive the plan through the GMRC with the hope that it would eventually be promulgated into a Development Order, through an Act of Parliament.

But Mayor Harris recently told the Jamaica Observer that the GMRC "has become antiquated. The UDC [Urban Development Corporation] is doing one development for the UDC which will integrate into the Emerging Sustainable City Development, and then we will expand that to build the St James Development Order," said the mayor.

Back in the mid-1990s Montego Bay was given the dubious distinction of having the most squatter communities -- ringed by some 17, mostly squalid settlements in which crime festered and criminals found refuge.

Then, concerns were raised about the negative impact the 17 squatter settlements were having on the city.

Today, those same concerns still exist.

The St James Police, for example, has consistently complained about the challenges posed by the squatter settlements.

In most of these communities, there is little or poor lighting, no roadways, no street signs and the squatting takes place, most times, on high ground.

And calls for successive governments to regulate the settlements -- many of which have become unsightly, squalid slums -- have fallen on deaf ears.

In essence, Montego Bay has become as famous for its tourism and beaches, as it is infamous domestically for its crime and violence.

Last year, for example, the parish of St James recorded 159 homicides, its capital Montego Bay accounting for a significant chunk.

And so far this year, more than 60 murders have been recorded on the police blotters for the parish.

In a bid to curtail the blood-letting there, Commissioner of Police Dr Carl Williams last month transferred Senior Superintendent Steve McGregor from the tough West Kingston Police Division to St James, where the latter had served as the commanding officer between 2007 and 2009.

Lawmen in recent years have blamed the multimillion- dollar lottery scam for the majority of the homicides.

The city, which has a population of roughly 120,000, has also been without a functioning fireboat for more than seven years, after the lone vessel, which is normally anchored in proximity to the River Bay Fishing Beach, was damaged. The extensive damage resulted from a cold front repeatedly slamming the vessel against huge rocks along the coastline on the morning of January 3, 2008.

A decision was later taken not to have it salvaged as it was said to be inadequate to meet the needs of the city.

Discussions were subsequently held with a number of stakeholders in an effort to secure a new boat, but those talks have seemingly gone through the window.

Mayor Harris told the Sunday Observer recently that another round of discussions was taking place, this time with the Tourism Enhancement Fund, in an effort to secure the necessary funding for the purchase of a new vessel, as well as for the construction of a fire station in the city.

But, despite all the problems besetting Montego Bay, it is widely believed that "some progress" has been made, particularly in recent years.

Many residents point to the:

. expansion of the Sangster International Airport;

. construction of the Montego Bay Convention Centre;

. development of the Montego Bay Freeport;

. creation of more than 7,000 jobs in the Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) sector;

. renovation and renaming of the Montego Bay Civic Centre;

. construction and expansion of several hotels, including Hyatt Ziva and Hyatt Zilara, RIU Ironshore, Secrets Resorts, Sunset Beach Resorts and Iberostar

. upgrading of the Howard Cooke Boulevard;

. construction of several business establishments such as the KFC Building, Scotiabank Centre, Montego Bay Shopping Centre and expansion of Fairview Shopping Complex; and

. numerous housing developments.

. opening of western Jamaica campuses of the University of the West Indies and University of Technology.

Mayor Harris, who has been the councillor for the Maroon Town Division of the St James Parish Council for 25 years, describes Montego Bay as one of the fastest-growing cities in the entire Caribbean.

He pointed to the raft of infrastructural developments in recent years and the creation of thousands of jobs.

"Thousands of jobs are being created: we have the airport, we have the seaport, we have a business centre, we have an educated population... so we really have experienced rapid growth over the past five years," he told the Sunday Observer.

He pointed out that a raft of other projects, including further development at the Barnett Tech Park, construction of another high school, development of a western Jamaica campus of the University of the West Indies, housing developments in the Bogue and Irwin areas, are soon to come on stream.

But the recent infrastructural developments, as well as those in the pipeline, have prompted renewed calls for the creation of a road to bypass the bustling St James city.

Kerr-Jarrett believes that such a bypass road, apart from easing traffic congestion in the city, would open
up more developments, particularly in the area of housing.

"We have seen a lot of development and growth over the past five, 10 years or so, but I think the one area that we have not done very well is in housing for the people that we have been creating jobs for, the social engineering such as schools, hospitals. We have left all of that behind as we focus more on job creation. And that's why I have been calling for that bypass road which would come from Dumfries, Adelphi area, so we can open up an area for a nicely organised, comfortable, well-serviced dormitory community for Montego Bay," he argued.

Earlier this year, Tony Hart, another prominent Montego Bay businessman, made similar calls, as well as Member of Parliament for West Central St James Sharon Ffolkes Abrahams.

"We definitely need the bypass urgently. When we consider the fact that the University of the West Indies will be opening up a campus in the Bogue area and ground will be broken very shortly, also the fact that we have the BPO [Business Processing Outsourcing] industry here that is growing, and the fact that persons who work in that area are coming from all over western Jamaica and other areas, so we need to have this bypass if we are going to accommodate the growth that we expect in the city," said Ffolkes Abrahams, who is also the state minister in the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce.

    

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