Fri | Sep 20, 2019

Carolyn Cooper | Another public beach gone private!

Published:Sunday | September 8, 2019 | 12:30 AM
Fort Clarence Beach, Portmore.
Carolyn Cooper
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On July 7, I got an alarming email from a 69-year-old retiree who used to enjoy going to Fort Clarence Beach. It’s probably past tense for her with the new ‘developments’ the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) has initiated. Here’s what she reported:

“Today I visited Fort Clarence having been in recovery for the last two months from major surgery. To my distress, the staff informed us that they were notified by the UDC last Wednesday (?) that they had to vacate the premises by the end of this month as the property had been ‘sold’ to GUARDSMAN.

Where are they supposed to go? How are they supposed to earn an honest living? Why could the UDC not include in the agreements provisions for a shop/s to accommodate these workers and others for a nominal rent? Why could the UDC not include offers of employment in line with what they are currently making?”

These are very sensible questions anyone concerned about genuine development would ask. How could the UDC give three weeks’ notice to tenants to vacate shops they had leased for more than a decade? And which they say they maintained when the UDC failed to do so!

The email ended on a half-serious suicidal note: “I am just in despair for my country. Between the external debts we have amassed to those other folks, and the selling off of assets, the other 99 per cent of us might as well just walk out into the sea and leave the island to these folks. That seems to be what is wanted or wished for).” Echoes of the Africans on the Middle Passage who jumped into the sea to escape slavery!

CASH TO CARE

Edward Seaga must be rolling in his grave. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Heroes Park; or somewhere in the US – as conspiracy theorists have been claiming. The Urban Development Corporation, which Seaga founded in 1968, does not seem to be able to manage the basic business of developing and maintaining public beaches. Admittedly, beaches are not a priority of the corporation. But access to facilities for recreation is an essential element of individual and national development.

According to the UDC website, its core business/strategic objectives are to:

- Assure the financial viability and solvency of the corporation;

- Improve business/operational efficiencies.

- Return the corporation to its core functions as defined by the UDC Act.

- Maximise and align the talent of the UDC with new structure [ sic] and redefine the UDC culture;

- Improve service provided to our customers;

- Maximise UDC’s social impact and contribution to national development.

“It takes cash to care,” Seaga famously said. So I suppose it’s appropriate that the primary strategic objective of UDC is “financial viability and solvency”. All the same, it’s not comforting that ‘national development’ is at the very bottom of the UDC’s list. And improving service is next to last. Caring about ‘social impact’ seems far less important than cash.

‘NO PLACE LIKE HOME’

As a student of anthropology, Seaga understood the effects of urbanisation on the quality of life of rural Jamaicans who were hoping to improve their prospects in Kingston or smaller towns. Seaga wanted to stem the flow of migrants. He knew that life in rural communities had to be improved.

This was a primary mission of the UDC in the early years after Independence. Major projects were carried out in MoBay, Ocho Rios, Negril, Falmouth, Hellshire and Caymanas. Some of this ‘development’ was not in the best interest of the environment. But half a century ago, that didn’t seem to matter. We should know better now, but we don’t seem to.

Last month, I attended the US premiere of Perry Henzell’s long-lost film, No Place Like Home. One of the most arresting features of this rambling story is the glorious images of unblemished Negril before it was ‘developed’. Ironically, the overbuilding of hotels compromised the unspoilt beauty that attracted hordes of tourists in the first place. The price of ‘progress’ can be very high.

FISCAL CONSTRAINTS

By its own admission, the UDC has failed to strike a balance between cash and care. In a press release dated August 29, 2019, the general manager, Heather Pinnock, states that “the divestment option was explored because of unsustainable annual losses at the facility. Additionally, fiscal constraints have limited the UDC’s ability to fully implement its development plans for the property”.

How is Guardsman Hospitality Limited going to make money on the property when UDC could not? Will Fort Clarence Beach be ‘developed’ on the model of Puerto Seco Beach? Will there be plastic playpens in the sea? And a dolphinarium? Will the entry fee go up? Will patrons be prevented from bringing their own food and drinks on the property? Will the usual patrons be able to afford the ‘improvements’?

And what about UDC’s former tenants? Instead of being evicted at the end of July, they got a reprieve until the end of August. But that’s definitely not enough. In the spirit of Seaga’s vision, the UDC needs to ensure that it’s not only the big man who benefits from urban renewal.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.