Vernamfield an economic game-changer, says Derby

BY BALFORD HENRY
Senior staff reporter
balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, November 18, 2018

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The US$2.5-billion Vernamfield development project in Clarendon has been described as a game-changer that will benefit the Jamaican economy in terms of jobs and increased trading possibilities.

In fact, according to Project Manager Colonel Oscar Derby, the long-delayed venture to develop the World War II airbase into the Aerotropolis Vernamfield project, could eventually produce close to a staggering one million job opportunities.

Derby was speaking at last Thursday night's weekly meeting of the North St Andrew Kiwanis Club at Police Officers' Club in St Andrew.

He said that between Chinese firm JISCO's Gansu special economic zone and industrial park in Nain, St Elizabeth, where ground is scheduled to be broken in December, the Caymanas and other Special Economic Zones (SEZs), the logistic hub areas and the Aerotropolis, could produce employment for 147,400 Jamaicans, with each of those jobs, by way of indirect and induced multipliers, expected to create a further 737,000 job opportunities.

“So this is, basically, as described by one executive from one of our leading banks, a game-changer for Jamaica,” Derby said.

He noted that future plans for the Aerotropolis — a metropolitan sub-region where the layout, infrastructure, and economy are centred on an airport which serves as a multi-modal “airport city” commercial core — include maintenance repairs and overhaul, an aerospace college and other flight schools, and the construction of an extended runway, which should be completed within two years to accommodate the largest aircraft available.

Derby said that this project, if properly done, could generate $121 in Gross Domestic Product for each dollar that is invested.

He also said that it will add to the plans for the increased manufacturing investments, including the Caymanas SEZ and existing ports and other activities in the immediate vicinity of the Aerotropolis.

He stated that 20,000 homes, accommodating an average of 80,000 people based on the average four persons per family, will also be built.

He said that, in terms of the Gansu project, the initial build-out will be in eight years. He also noted that JISCO, which recently restarted operations at ALPART which had been closed for the previous nine years, is already shipping alumina to China, after reactivating the main plant.

In addition, Derby pointed out that, in deference to Jamaica's choice of its source of energy, JISCO had agreed to use LNG instead of coal, which was originally proposed.

“The rest of the industrial park is going to be built-out over a period of 10 to 20 years, and at full build out, about 100,000 persons will be living and working in the general area,” he added.

“Vernamfield is pretty much smack in the middle, between the two major commercial and productive zones that will be using the airport as the means of moving their goods through the regional market, the Americas, and many of those goods halfway across the world to China,” Derby said.

He said that the old railway system, which has been out of use, except for those lines used by ALPART, could be included in the multi-modal transport system, linking up with fairly new lines operated by Jamalco, passing only half-a-mile north of the main rail being used in Vernamfield.

He argued that the multi-modal system could link the old rail system, which is operable, as far as Spanish Town in St Catherine, and travel north to Alcan and Port Esquivel, with Highway 2000 creating the possibility of a link between the Six Mile area of Western St Andrew with the Port of Kingston, in order to facilitate developments taking in the southern part of the county of Middlesex.

He noted that the major shipping lines sailing in and out of the Panama Canal all traverse the vicinity of Jamaica, and for transshipment purposes stop at the Port of Kingston.

“It is the first port that the ships can steam to, once they leave the canal,” he noted.

Derby also pointed out that there are over 50 countries with which Jamaica has air service agreements and the Vernamfield airport, when built, will be capable of taking the largest cargo aircraft in operation. Only Curacao and Cuba currently have suitable runways for those aircraft.

A former director of the Civil Aviation Authority, Derby also noted that there will be a need for the Government to purchase privately owned lands in the area, through the Airports Authority of Jamaica, to build out the new runways.

“This is a major project development and it is going to take Gansu some 20 to 25 years for the full build-out; but we have started,” he said.

He noted that the clearing and debushing of the land started on October 28, and that he expects that, in another five days, it will be completed.

“By the middle of next year, 2019, we should be able to reactivate aviation activities at the airport, and then we start with the planning and getting investors. We are already working on that, to build out the major airport and the Aerotropolis,” he told the audience.

However, despite these plans, Derby said that he was concerned about the attitude some Jamaicans were displaying regarding the increasing interest being shown in Jamaica by firms from China.

“It means that attitudes will have to change, or be more positive (towards the Chinese investors),” he suggested.

“I should point out that JISCO already has 52 Jamaican engineers in China, undergoing training in the manufacturing of aluminium, and also training in the corporate culture of JISCO. So that when they come back to Jamaica, they will be taking up some of the senior jobs,” he said.

“They won't be just persons holding up signs on the road, or any of the menial jobs: These are engineers. A video done in China of the 52 engineers in training shows how well they have been treated in China,” he told the Kiwanians.

“There is nothing that they have asked for that they have not gotten, and here in Jamaica, sadly, we have a lot of negative views toward the Chinese involvement… Surely we will be hearing from them about their experiences in China when they come back,” he stated.

Colonel Derby's presentation, which included three short videos, was followed by a question and answer session during which he responded to several questions on the project, as well as the protection of the rights of Jamaican workers and investors, in light of the current investments by firms from China.

The meeting was chaired by the president of the North St Andrew Kiwanis Club, Barrington Miller. Also participating was Julliet Mair, representing the core implementation team for the Vernamfield project.

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