The western city of Montego Bay, over these many decades, has evolved from being a sleepy little fishing village to become the tourism capital of Jamaica. But, alas, because of a lack of well-thought-out developmental strategies and programmes, the magnetic force of tourism has lured thousands of Jamaicans from other parts of the island in search of their piece of the pie, including drug pushers and prostitutes.
One of the deleterious offshoots of this trajectory was the mushrooming of some 21 squatter settlements as many of those who came to the “Promised Land” had nowhere to live. So, even while hotel rooms increased and many attractions emerged, shacks and makeshift dwellings were scattered along the hillsides and gullies and even next door to some of these elegant properties.
Needless to say, this worrying socio-economic phenomenon soon became the cauldron in which crime and violence thrived. Disputes over “captured” landownership, as well as illegal sales in this regard; the emergence of youth gangs as a result of them being jobless, untrained, and directionless; political manipulation involving various vote-catching strategies which created tribalistic divides; domestic disputes surrounding paternity issues and widespread promiscuity triggered in many instances by the need to survive (especially for the women); plus numerous other issues, including a degrading environment and a crass lack of social and other amenities have all helped to create the 'ghettoisation' of large portions of the western city and its environs.
The sad truth is that tourism by itself cannot absorb and meet all the employment and entrepreneurial needs of the general citizenry, especially the young, so drug-pushing and lotto scamming have become attractive options, bringing with them the escalation in gang rivalry, which ultimately leads to persistent bloodletting.
The end result is that St James — and, by extension, Montego Bay — has for quite some time become the murder capital of Jamaica, and this trend, from all indications, is destined to continue. Within the month of January, alone, the parish is fast-approaching some 30 murders, making it the leading homicide region in the island once again.
Against this background there is a painful, bittersweet irony as the parish is represented by, according to the polls, the best- and worst-performing ministers in the personages of Tourism Minister Ed Bartlett and National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang. And, of course, there is the former Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte, who did not enjoy much public trust in that role, and is now the newly minted minister of legal and constitutional affairs. Added to this trio is backbencher Heroy Clarke, who has had a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, but is seen as the “homeboy in the trenches”.
Then there is South St James Member of Parliament Homer Davis, who Prime Minister Andrew Holness has seen fit to appoint as minister of state in charge of the Office of the Prime Minister in the west. This tenure has fortuitously given him a head start as he will be permanently ensconced in the “Bay” for all intents and purposes.
It is safe to say that no other section of Jamaica, perhaps outside of the Corporate Area, has such an impressive and influential cadre of people who are part of the upper echelons of the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) political directorate. In this context, let us bear in mind that Dr Horace Chang, in addition to being the JLP's general secretary, is also the deputy prime minister, while Homer Davis is a deputy general secretary. It may well be said that “it doesn't get better than this”, but can't it?
It is to be noted that state minister Davis has his work cut out for him as he has a great deal of projects under his belt to monitor and ensure that taxpayers' money is well spent and that the ever-present virus of corruption does not infect the body politic, which will be to our detriment.
However, the irony gets even more bittersweet when it is understood that, apart from being the gateway to the country's burgeoning tourism capital, Montego Bay has been described as the fastest-growing urban centre in the Caribbean and Latin America. And, in this context, it is no secret that, by way of the tourism industry and the business process outsourcing (BPO)sector, the city has been contributing significantly to the nation's coffers. So, while the “pretty side” of the city and parish is being touted and revered, there is the “ugly side”, which, for the most part, has been ignored or given only lip service over many decades.
Lest we forget, the west, more so St James, has been seen as the weathervane section of the country, which, most times, gives a clear indication as to which party is likely to win a general or local government election. This was borne out most recently with the results of both elections, which saw the JLP making an almost clean sweep.
In the wake of these convincing victories, the parish has been ostensibly rewarded by way of a number of substantive infrastructure developments, including the Harmony Beach Park, expansion of the Sangster International Airport, a spanking new fire station, plus a number of impressive housing developments. In the pipeline are the Hip Strip improvement project, Montego Bay Perimeter Road Project, rehabilitation and expansion of the Long Hill Road, as well as Barnett Street, just to name a few.
But, while these physical developments are taking place, the social capital of the parish is bereft of any meaningful and sustainable attention, which, in part, explains the crippling crime and violence problem. To put it bluntly, Mr Prime Minister, the pouring of concrete and asphalt is not sufficient to fulfil the objectives of Vision 2030 as far as St James is concerned. And your star-studded team of Horace, Ed, Marlene, and Homer should be galvanised to come up with a concerted plan of action to help tackle the crime and violence problem plaguing their respective constituencies.
Yes, these government luminaries will have to pay attention to their national duties, but it is time that they prioritise working together for the betterment of the western capital. For starters, they should be major players in a crime summit that brings together all the major stakeholders in one room in order to come up with an action plan.
There has been talk of ego issues among them, but they must be able to put aside selfish intentions and preoccupations in order to ensure that St James is wrested from the clutches of social degradation.
It's time to look homeward Horace, Ed, Marlene, and Homer. Lest they forget, the motto for the city of Montego Bay is “Progress or Perish”.
Lloyd B Smith has been involved full-time in Jamaican media for the past 45 years. He has also served as a Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. He hails from western Jamaica where he is popularly known as the Governor. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.