Editorial | Vernamfield better deal than Bernard Lodge
The planned development of Vernamfield in Clarendon, as part of a broader initiative to establish Jamaica as a global logistics hub, is among the sexier projects the Government has on its books.
It is not one, though, that the Holness administration, these days, appears to talk a lot about. The poster child is the proposed new city at Bernard Lodge, St Catherine.
Vernamfield is an old, Second World War, United States Air Force base built on more than 2,000 acres of land Jamaica’s then British colonial rulers, in 1941, ceded to the Americans. In exchange, President Roosevelt gave the Brits war materiel to help stave off Hitler’s Nazis. In the region, the Americans also got bases at Coolidge in Antigua, Chaguaramas in Trinidad, and Atkinson in Guyana.
The Americans shut down Vernamfield in 1949, four years after the war. Yet, seven decades on, with little or no maintenance, its 6,000-foot runway remains largely intact. That runway, aviation experts say, can be easily extended 4,000 feet, and up to 14,000 feet, to accommodate the world’s largest and most sophisticated cargo planes.
Further, another runway, of comparable length, can be built parallel to the existing one and extended, without compromising international best practices relating to the airspace required by planes approaching airports.
Vernamfield, the analysts insist, with regard to its size and flight conditions can’t be replicated anywhere in Jamaica. Which makes it an ideal site for an aerotropolis and a crucial component for the logistics hub initiative. Essentially, it is to be a city centred on air-cargo movements and aviation and logistical operations. In addition to the existing acreage, the Vernamfield build-out would encompass another 4,000 acres of land, some of which used to be in sugar and is among the most fertile in Jamaica. That is a problem for agriculture.
Vernamfield offers an upside. In relatively short order, the studies say, it could attract up to 15 per cent of Miami’s air-cargo moves, or the equivalent of 30 to 45 per cent of the moves between Latin America and Europe.
Importantly, too, Vernamfield’s air-cargo capacity would be a critical facilitator of a logistics park planned for the Caymanas region of St Catherine as well as a similar 8,000-acre facility Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company of China plans around the Alpart alumina refinery in Nain, St Elizabeth.
CONSENSUS AROUND THE PROJECT
Our concern, in the circumstances, is for the relationship, or perhaps lack thereof, between these proposed developments and the administration’s planned new city – the promotion of which has been unrelenting – on more than 4,000 acres at Bernard Lodge, on the rich alluvial plain of St Catherine. It is not clear how this fits into the Government’s policy for agricultural and food security – assuming there is one.
The Vernamfield project is captured in Jamaica’s Vision 2030 development ideal, which suggests that there is political and social consensus around the project. We remain to be advised whether the Bernard Lodge city was contemplated as part of, and made it into, the 2030 document.
As we have remarked before, the Bernard Lodge city, with its 17,000 homes, factories, and commercial buildings, represents an accelerated encroachment on Jamaica’s agricultural lands. The flaccid response to concerns is that with the near death of sugar, these lands are idle, as though that makes it beyond the capacity, and creativity, of Jamaicans to find alternative, and economically viable, crops to grow to help offset our near US$800 million food-import bill.
This newspaper appreciates the rationale of policy trade-offs. It is inevitable that some former agricultural lands will fall to other uses. But rational policy trade-offs must be just that – rational. That is not the case with regard to Bernard Lodge.
The legacy and circumstance of Vernamfield provides a plausible case for its aerotropolis. That weakens the case for the new city at Bernard Lodge, especially in circumstances where existing, and extended, highways make them mere minutes apart.
Moreover, May Pen, Clarendon, adjacent to Vernamfield, is a blighted urban centre in need of renewal. It would make sense, and be cheaper, to make its redevelopment part of the Vernamfield project rather than waste billions on the Bernard Lodge city.