Black River’s rebirth
BLACK RIVER, St Elizabeth — Business and political leaders here are optimistic that this heritage rich south-central town will once again see growth in tourism and commerce, following infrastructural investments including the expansion of Highway 2000 to Hodges, near the town.
Safari tour operators in Black River, Dr Donovan Bennett and Joseph Charles Swaby, are among the business leaders eager to see easier access to Black River, after a recent announcement by Prime Minister Andrew Holness for plans to extend the Southern Coastal Highway Project westwards to Hodges in the parish. This follows the completion of the US$188 million May Pen to Williamsfield leg of Highway 2000 in August 2023. The Jamaica Observer was told that the planning phase of the leg from Williamsfield to Hodges could take up to two years.
Dr Bennett, a proprietor of St Elizabeth Safari Crocodile Tour, believes the highway will bring development and business to the south coast.
“I think there is an overall all-island plan to have [easier] access from the tourism areas to all different parts of the country… Obviously, if you have a highway passing through south St Elizabeth and coming to Black River, it must bring economic rewards, because the type of travel is going to be significantly less than it would be now,” he said.
He told the Sunday Observer last week that Black River had lost business, with all but one bank closing down operations in the town.
Dr Bennett added that the community tourism-based Treasure Beach, located south east of Black River will also benefit from reduced travel time from Kingston.
“As far as Black River is concerned, it is at its lowest right now. All the banks have left Black River. There is just one bank in Black River now,” said Dr Bennett.
“There has been a migration of jobs from Black River into Santa Cruz and to Junction, so Black River needs all the help it can get. I would imagine that if this road passes through Black River and ends up by Hodges which is just a few miles down the road, it should have a significant impact on the economy of the town and certainly on the tourism business in the town, it must have an impact too,” he added.
Swaby, proprietor of Black River Safari Tours, supports the Government’s plan to extend Highway 2000 to Hodges, but also wants to see the return of the railway system.
“Yes, where it concerns the highway that they would like to run close to Black River, I am certainly 100 per cent in support of that. Before I started doing the tour in 1987, at that time the railroad was in operation between Montego Bay, coming right up [close] to Black River because of the sugar estate. When I did my research I think it was in 1985, they said over 50,000 tourists came from Black River to go up to Appleton,” he said.
“It had been my hope that a spur line for that railroad would have been initiated to come down to Black River and if that had happened or if it can still happen, Black River couldn’t handle the amount of tourists that would come there, so both the railway line and the highway is definitely [needed],” added Swaby.
Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Western Floyd Green said Black River is set to boom with investments being made in heritage tourism and infrastructure.
“There is a rebirth of Black River happening. We now have at least four commercial complexes under construction right now in the town of Black River and that builds up on the investment,” Green said.
Green, in welcoming the announcement, said the highway will spur rural development.
“In order to re-engineer rural development you have to make it easier to get to the main commercial centres and that has been part of the challenge. A lot of people have to relocate to urban centres for jobs or to live, because the commute is just so challenging. I think this is a game-changer for all of that,” he said.
Councillor Dwight Salmon (People’s National Party, Black River) told the Sunday Observer that the town needs more investors.
“I don’t see where the highway is going to have a great impact on the town of Black River in terms of investment, because the town now is lacking investors. When we speak about investors I always believe the best ones are locals,” said Salmon.
“The local one is going to spend [money] in his own community. With JPS leaving Black River that was like a natural disaster, because up to now as a councillor I am struggling, if you have a street lamp to repair it takes a [long] time to get it fixed. For people who have queries with JPS they are having a challenge, because the only place that they can reach out to is Mandeville,” he added.
Salmon blamed the Jamaica National Heritage Trust for the loss of business in Black River.
“One of the biggest setbacks for investors in Black River is the Heritage Trust, it is basically getting people discouraged in terms of business,” he said.
There are buildings, some dilapidated, designated as heritage sites in Black River and are protected by the National Heritage Trust.
Former chairman of the South Coast Resort Board, Anthony Freckleton who has long lobbied for the development of the south coast, said the planned highway project will bolster investments in “the entire south coast with its plethora of heritage sites”.
“The realignment of the road bypassing Spur Tree Hill to Montego Bay to facilitate easy access to the south coast to Alligator Pond, Great Bay, Treasure Beach and Black River will definitely spur greater interests in the area,” said Freckleton.
“This now will allow tourism on the south coast to begin the pilgrimage… We have a world-class YS Falls attraction. We have river tours with the crocodiles. We have Lovers’ Leap and also Appleton [Estate]. It has all the ingredients to become a mecca for community tourism in the island,” added Freckleton.
Green said that Black River is being recognised as the “new frontier” for investment.
“We expect that the long term plan would be a new bridge for Black River as a part of this highway development programme and there are a lot of ideas in relation to how that bridge will be operationalised.
The rebirth of the historically rich south-central town and its potential of greater heritage tourism is expected to include vast digital transformation including the use of augmented reality for storyboards.
Richards Hendricks, a resident of Black River, told the Sunday Observer that the town remains peaceful, with low crime.
“You can sleep with your door open… it is a nice little town in terms of for retirees, because there is not a lot of night noise and the crime rate is very low,” said Hendricks.
Green, in lobbying for a cruise ship pier to be constructed in Black River or its environs, said the planned highway project is a catalyst for the south coast.
“This also puts into sharp focus things like developing a pier [on] that side of the world. We already have the Black River Wharf, so whether you take that or re-engineer that or you look to somewhere like Font Hill and develop a sort of cruise pier,” said Green.
In 2009, Prince Albert II dropped anchor outside Black River because of the shallow draught close to shore, taking locals by surprise, as it is suggested that before that time, cruise vessels last docked there in the 1980s.
Green said the highway project will reduce travel time between Kingston and St Elizabeth.
“… Now heading to Black River you are looking at two and a half to three hours, if we can cut 40 minutes or an hour off that time by utilising highways, then think about how much a game changer that is in terms of coming into a port in Black River being able to see some of the sites in and around Black River and going further afield to develop sites like Milk River Bath and things of that nature,” said Green.
“This is a catalyst for development for not just Black River, but the entire south coast and I will go further the entire St Elizabeth,” added Green.
Swaby and Dr Bennett have agreed with Green’s suggestion for a cruise ship pier at Font Hill, because of the shallow draught in Black River.
“If a cruise ship pier is to be built this side, it would have to be a place like Font Hill just along the border of Westmoreland and St Elizabeth, because there is deep water there. There is a natural deep water system there,” said Dr Bennett.
Swaby pointed to the historic firsts in Black River.
“Many people may not be aware, but it is said that the first thoroughbred race horse to be exported to Jamaica came in through the Black River port… because it is a shallow water port the horse was put in the sea and it swam ashore,” he said.
“The first motor car to come into Jamaica came in through the port of Black River. I went to school with the daughter of the man who imported it,” added Swaby.
Black River was the first town in the island to receive electricity, in 1893, in a house named ‘Waterloo’.
Swaby said he is “disappointed” with the deterioration of the Black River Mineral Spa.
“It has just in recent years been dumped up close to the hospital and to go further, King Leopold of Belgium a couple hundred years ago came to use that spa, because of the mineral properties to help with diseases. If that spa were to be put back in use, you know what that could do for Black River? Those are some of the things that need to be looked at,” he said.