Thu | Dec 8, 2016

The Outamoney Experience

Published:Sunday | November 23, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Daniel Thwaites

Before the prime minister answered questions in Parliament two Tuesdays ago, I was of the view that the National Housing Trust (NHT) board had made an error of judgement and bought a tourist attraction. I came to that conclusion based on NHT Chairman Douglas' statement that Outamoney was bought "lock, stock and barrel".

Assuming Douglas had reported the action of the board accurately, the question was whether such a purchase comported with the NHT's core functions, and why that loss-making attraction was bought, as opposed to, say, other equally worthy tourist attractions like my friend Andrew's Great Wall of Jamaica in Beverly Hills?

Seriously, though, Jamaica's Great Wall has more visitors and gawkers than Outamoney. If NHT is going into the attractions business, why not set up a visitor's centre, some public facilities, and perhaps a tour guide for the Great Wall. Why a museum of Jamaica's history way out in Trelawny instead of an artefact crowning the present?

But now, subsequent to the PM's presentation, it has emerged that only the land at Orange Grove was bought. This is doing less with more.

In reality, the idea that everything about a putative tourist attraction was purchased except the actual attractive parts deepens, rather than relieves, the problem. The Gleaner editorialises that the PM was 'Let down by strategists'. Ahhhmmm. Yes. Definitely.

Let's back up a bit. When people claim there isn't a whole heap of money floating around Jamaica, I try to square that with the stratospheric price of real estate here. Quite a few parts of Kingston rival Manhattan and South Beach in expense, something that the official performance of the economy wouldn't exactly predict.

MOST EXPENSIVE BUSHLAN'

But even with knowledge of the gravity-defying cost of housing and land in Kingston, I really didn't expect to learn that it costs $180 million for you to buy nine acres in the bush in Trelawny. For housing? If it were for oil, gold and mineral exploration, it would make more sense.

At $180 million for nine acres, that's roughly $20 million per acre. Assuming a lot size of quarter-acre, that works out to $4.5 million for a house plot. Raw land in de bush wi talkin. Now calculate the cost of bringing light, water and roads into the project, particularly by Government, and we can safely guesstimate that each lot will cost a bazillion dollars.

Actually, we would have to further assume housing units that comport with the oil-rich land, because nobody is spending dem breed a money on land to put up nuh tatty or bamboo shack. I still have my JDIP calculator, and ascordin' to it, this will work out to about $180 million per house if you want to live in what is now the country's most expensive piece of bushlan'.

The NHT board, despite a composition weighted towards intellectually sound and socially aware trade unionists, has not acquitted itself well. In fact, its most vocal members haven't been helping much. Percival LaTouche's comment that this may have been the NHT's "best investment ever" is a whopper worthy of sale at Burger King.

Then consider Senator Lambert Brown's observation on TVJ that the $180 million, if alternatively spent (at $2 million per unit), would provide only 90 homes, insufficient to solve the housing crisis in Jamaica.

I really wouldn't encourage looking at the issue in that way. It's not mere petit bourgeois incrementalism to imagine what 90 houses in Rae Town could do for the lives of 90 families, and the positive rippling impact it would have throughout the community. Remember, housing is the opiate of the masses.

LOCK, STOCK AND BARREL?

Only the reptilian consciousness of social media could take any pleasure in calling for the resignation of a man like Easton Douglas, who has served the country for so long and in so many capacities. But what choice are we left with when within hours of him saying that the NHT bought Outamoney "lock, stock and barrel", our prime minister was forced to report that negotiations will have to commence for the intellectual property, and that her chairman's barrel contained only "the standby generator, a fuel tank, and office furniture"?

I think it is quite inescapable that the purchase was intended to be of the tourist attraction, and that explanations of it being otherwise are ex post facto evasions. The initial mistake has been compounded by obfuscation and a liberal sprinkle of diversionary horse manure. It's no comfort, or excuse, that the previous administration was rooting around for a way to do the same thing.

Daryl Vaz has outlined three immediate required actions: fire the board, amend the NHT Act to make its purposes crystal clear, and halt all expenditure on Outamoney. I could never accept Daryl's characterisation of this infraction as even remotely similar to the Dudus saga, which was a sprawling, international, long-term programme of blood-soaked and costly lying. But that hopeless exaggeration aside, his reasoning is impeccable, and his view ought to be heeded.

Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.