Martin Henry | Is St Thomas time now?
St Thomas has had many good reasons from state neglect to have rebelled again since 1865. From Montego Bay, where he was opening the first Jamaica International Exhibition, Prime Minister Holness announced big plans for the development of Morant Bay.
It really would have been much nicer, more thoughtful, to have done so at an event in Morant Bay itself, or from the nation's Parliament, where policy and development announcements are too often not made but should be made.
The announcement of the parish capital's development plan from the country's tourism capital just once again underscores the Cinderella status of St Thomas. The plan is to establish a new town centre on the 25-acre property occupied by the long-closed, decayed, and vandalised Goodyear tyre factory now occupied by goats and other vagrants. Mr Holness won't be the first to announce big plans for the Goodyear factory lands. Will he be the last?
The factory for tyre manufacturing in Jamaica (registered 1965, manufacturing ended 1997) was a key part of the country's industrialisation plan of the 1960s, which was led by Robert Lightbourne, then minister of industry and commerce, St Thomas man, and member of parliament for St Thomas Western. In addition, there was the electrical manufacturing factory established at Eleven Miles. And the old sugar factories at Duckenfield and Serge Island.
Birth of commercial sugar production
Commercial sugar production for export came to Jamaica when Major Luke Stokes, who had been governor of Nevis, brought sugar cane plants for his estate at Stokes Hall in St Thomas in 1656, just a year after the English took the island from the Spanish. Destructive labour disputes helped to drive Goodyear to end manufacturing in Jamaica, pushing St Thomas further back on the growth curve.
The new town 'centre', announced on the very day the hurricane season started, June 1, will be on the edge of town flat down in the Morant River valley. A nice, quiet, low-volume river. But then the older heads saw wisdom in building on higher ground like where the current town sits. Morant Bay has been severely battered by hurricanes past, including recent ones that have significantly eroded the coastline from White Horses eastwards, including substantial damage to the coast road.
In the Holness plan, "There will be a town hall for the parish council building, and it will be right in the centre of the new town settlement. There will be a space for a conference centre, there will be space for a library, there will be space for shopping, but, more importantly, we will create purpose-built manufacturing space."
There is to be a Justice Square, where services offered by central Government will be positioned; space for a business outsourcing company and for financial institutions.
There will, of course, be implications for the congested old town centre. The initiative is to be led by the Factories Corporation of Jamaica. Not the UDC?
"We want," the prime minister said at the underutilised, loss-making Montego Bay Convention Centre, "to replicate this [the Morant Bay development] right across Jamaica. We want to be known as an efficient place where you can come and find both the infrastructure and human resource. That's the way we will be able to corner the market as a little country," he said.
Infrastructure? Manufactur-ing? Business? But we are going to need to get in and out of Morant Bay with ease. Pumping up Morant Bay without the South Coast Highway just won't cut it.
But I have an even bolder vision. St Thomas people were angry and upset at the proposal by the present Government to cut back on the scale of the highway imagined by the administration before. But a less elaborate, well-laid-out and well-built two-lane road with extended soft shoulders linking Kingston to Port Antonio via Morant Bay actually makes a lot of good sense. Especially if part of the savings from the scale-back would be used to build two good loop roads in St Thomas to really open up the parish for business and development. Loop 1: Bull Bay through Mavis Bank in East Rural St Andrew to Cedar Valley into Morant Bay. Loop 2: Seaforth through Bath to Golden Grove.
What about a railroad spur into the parish when the railway is resuscitated if Transport Minister Mike Henry has his way? St Thomas was completely bypassed by the railway first established in 1845 and which ran until 1992 when Government shut it down. Bogle and his men would not have had to walk 45 miles to Spanish Town to try to fail to see the governor about St Thomas grievances if they could have taken the train then 20 years running.
What about commercial shipping again out of the safe Bowden Harbour that the JDF has long captured? But St Thomas has to have something to ship. Banana is dead.
Business, industry, commercial agriculture, development follow roads and railways and ports.
And St Thomas has excellent development prospects if given a push. The City of Kingston will inevitably grow eastward into St Thomas as it has done westward into St Catherine and northward into St Andrew. Save arable land and build on the scrublands of west St Thomas. Just get water and infrastructure in there. Like the flourishing desert towns of the Southwest United States and The Cayman Islands.
The people of western St Thomas are deeply resentful that the waters of the Yallahs River and the Western Negro River are sucked off for Kingston, bypassing their need for water for both irrigation and domestic use. Aggregates are hauled out of the east by the hundreds of trucks full, mashing up the one-tripe road into and out of the parish with little to show in return.
St Thomas has beaches and mountains and heritage sites for tourism. The parish has associations with three national heroes, Bogle, Gordon, and Bustamante, who had his Retreat property there. It is the accessible gateway to the Blue Mountains. It is fabulous territory for High Mountain and Blue Mountain coffee.
St Thomas could grow rich off an internationalised fruit industry centred on its famed mangoes. Grapes were grown in Ayala (Yallahs) by the Spanish. Serge Island, going from redundant sugar to dairy under Seprod ownership, has shown the possibilities of vertically integrating agriculture and manufacturing on Jamaican soil. I was proud to buss to see Jamaican condensed milk and evap milk from Serge Island on the local market. It's no longer just Swiss NestlÈ on which we grew up.
St Thomas, the last parish to get a traditional high school, 1961; the last one built before Independence; the one I attended, Morant Bay High School. Much as I thought I knew the parish, I was surprised to discover via newspaper interview stories a couple years ago that some parishioners feel that there is a Bogle 'curse' on the parish. Revered as national hero across the country, there is a lingering sentiment in his parish that is 'im an 'im uprisin that call dung crosses pan di parish. It's past time to lift the Bogle curse. And Prime Minister Holness said from Montego Bay that he is going to have this done.