MONTEGO BAY, St James — Bemoaning the downturn in business since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, president of Montego Bay's Old Fort Craft Market Association Marylin Falconer has voiced a desperate plea to meet with three government ministers.
Falconer, in an interview with the Jamaica Observer on Friday, stated that she has, without success, been trying to have a sit-down with Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett, Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Desmond McKenzie, and Minister of Finance Nigel Clarke to share the plight of craft vendors plying their wares in the tourism subsector.
According to the president of the craft market association, vendors have been facing a "grim situation" due to the lack of business coming from tourists visiting the island. While many tourism stakeholders have recovered from the negative implications of the pandemic and are eagerly awaiting the additional capital to come this winter tourist season, Falconer told the Sunday Observer that craft vendors have been struggling to make ends meet.
"We are not prepared at all for the winter tourist season, and one of the reasons is that we still have not recovered. Some of my members are not even coming to work, that is how damaging it is," said the woman who is also a craft vendor.
"We are having a difficult time. A lot of my vendors are flat on their faces — they are not even on their knees the way things are tough with them," Falconer added.
Explaining that the Government, through the St James Municipal Corporation (SJMC), has put measures in place to cushion the blow being experienced by the 154 craft vendors at the Old Fort Craft Market, Falconer told the Sunday Observer that without capital coming into their business, they are still experiencing financial difficulties.
Just last year, mayor of Montego Bay Leeroy Williams told reporters during a press conference that the municipal corporation, which owns and operates the craft market, granted a 100 per cent waiver on the rent payment to the vendors for three months.
A 50 per cent rent waiver was also granted which means that craft vendors at the Old Fort Craft Market are expected to pay $2,500 to the municipal corporation each month. However, Falconer told the Sunday Observer that some vendors are still unable to make this monthly payment.
"They gave us half off the rent but even with that it is still difficult for us to manoeuvre and pay all that money," Falconer lamented.
Meanwhile, additional help for the vendors came on the brink of last year's winter tourist season after Bartlett announced that his ministry was implementing a special Winter Tourist Season Capacity Building Support Programme for the island's craft traders.
Spearheaded by the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF), the initiative provided grants to licensed craft vendors to assist in preparing them for the anticipated influx of tourists during the winter tourist season, which begins on December 15 each year.
Falconer stated that many of the vendors at the Old Fort Craft Market were not among the 651 registered craft traders in receipt of this grant due to their inability to meet the required payment for licensing with the Tourism Product Development Company (TPDCo).
"A lot of my vendors could not get [the grant] because…we could not license our shops due to the rent that we owed. It is still a struggle because some of my vendors cannot register with TPDCo — after all, we are in a backlog from COVID," she shared.
A request to have their unpaid rent forgiven by the municipal corporation was also denied, Falconer told the Sunday Observer. She stated that this was another desperate attempt by the craft traders to benefit from the well-needed grant.
Falconer is pleading for the Government's intervention in the craft traders' current financial situation. She believes that with the dismissal of taxes currently owed by the vendors and a promotional boost from the tourism ministry, craft vendors will gain a fresh start and slowly recover from this "difficult" situation.
"It is a very difficult time. And even when you are expressing that it is difficult, people don't understand what we are facing there. We are not afraid of taxes. I asked for a meeting with the minister of finance, the minister of tourism, and the minister of local government to explain that, but I cannot get that meeting with them," she expressed to the Sunday Observer.
If this wish is granted, Falconer stated that craft vendors are committed to helping themselves maintain the push they would have received from the Government.
"If we contribute $50,000 a year then the Government won't have to use money from their purse to help us, we can contribute to help ourselves, so all we are asking them to do is help us to help ourselves," said Falconer.
She continued, "We don't want to be dependent — we want you to help us to help ourselves. We want to be able to contribute to the country. The minister of tourism can help us to do the training and whatever needs to set things on the right track."
"We are not a lazy set of people. If we can contribute to the system and the system helps us, the Government will benefit," the president reasoned.
Pointing out that craft vendors also have a responsibility to pay in their respective business operations, the Falconer maintained that they are just seeking assistance to get back on their feet.
"There are some things that we as craft vendors have to do for ourselves so I am not blaming anybody, but what we are saying is that we cannot manage that on our own right now, so help us. If you help us to help ourselves then we won't have to call you back to complain," said Falconer.
"The municipal corporation can do so much and no more. I sit in a meeting with them and I would not say that they have [the funds] because they are depending on the money that we are giving, and we cannot give any money. I am calling on Minister Clarke to do something for us," she added.
The vendors are prepared to bargain with the finance minister if necessary, Falconer told the Sunday Observer.
"These are things that we want to talk about but we can't get the time to talk about them," she said.