IN 2002 when the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) named St Mary the poorest parish in the country, few eyebrows were raised.
It was hardly a surprise. Having seen a decline in all of its main economic activities, including the once powerful agricultural sector, the north-eastern parish had become a mere shadow of its former glory days, where many of its residents were living below the poverty line.
That, however, was only the beginning. What residents and officials were not prepared for was how the parish suddenly became the butt of jokes -- fodder for columnists and cartoonists.
The dubious distinction also carried over into commerce where businesses suffered as according to one resident, "nobody wanted to invest their money in the poorest parish in the nation".
But three years later the PIOJ, using the same methodology, came out with another survey. And in a shocker, St Mary was replaced by St Ann as the poorest parish.
However, unlike how the 2002 survey was received in St Mary, for St Ann it was no laughing matter. The PIOJ's methodology had to be flawed, the parish's citizens said and officials came out swinging.
"We in St Ann cannot understand the method used by the PIOJ to arrive at this," said an irate Pauline Haughton, then president of the St Ann Chamber of Commerce.
"Where are these figures coming from? They must be inaccurate because we know that the country benefits a lot from revenue generated in St Ann," she said.
Then Mayor Delroy Giscombe dismissed the PIOJ's findings as a "sad joke" and was in no mood to mince words.
"The one main industry in St Mary, the banana industry, is still struggling while St Ann continues to benefit from tourism, mining and agriculture," he said. "Whoever did this survey needs to have his head examined," he added.
Now in 2010 the debate, it appears, is about to be rekindled.
"I would love to see another PIOJ survey of living conditions in Jamaica and see where St Ann and St Mary would fall," said Maureen Lee, a Tower Isle, St Mary, resident.
"St Ann has been counting on the fact that Ocho Rios is a major resort town and that there's a lot of United States dollars passing through. That reasoning is, however, flawed as a lot of the money that passes through Ocho Rios is channelled overseas and has no trickling-down value. This explains why St Ann has been dubbed the poorest parish," Lee said.
St Ann businessman Junior Tingle is, however, not convinced.
"Yes, it is true that the people of Ocho Rios hardly see any of the United States currency that is generated from the attractions, including Dunn's River Falls," he said. "However, St Ann has far more by way of employment going for it than St Mary. Everything of significance is down in St Mary. How could anyone in their right mind say St Ann is poorer than St Mary?" Tingle asked.
In its last survey, the PIOJ found that the per capita mean average consumption in St Ann was $48,508, or 42.2 per cent below the national mean. The estimates also revealed that the parish with the highest incidence of poverty, 37 per cent, was St Ann.
At the time of the survey, the poverty line was set at $47,128.70 per year for an individual, against the national mean average per capita consumption of $84,253 per annum.
Camille Miller, a resident of Ocean Ridge, St Mary said that it has become "fashionable for St Mary, to be robbed of its identity" by neighbouring St Ann.
"Everything over the White River Bridge belongs to St Mary," she said. "Even though this is a fact we still hear people loosely referring to Couples Sans Souci, Couples Hotel, Beaches Boscobel, Reggae Beach and James Bond Beach as Ocho Rios. This needs to stop.
"So which parish is poorer? "I would love to hear from the PIOJ," Miller said.