Wed | Oct 18, 2017

What's the true position?

Published:Monday | November 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller should by now recognise the clock is ticking for her to deal decisively with the Outameni Experience issue which is fast becoming a scandal. She may need to part company with the board chaired by Easton Douglas.

PM should clarify Outameni affairs

Mike Henry's intervention during the question-and-answer session at last Tuesday's sitting of the House of Representatives was most important, even if it did not make the headlines.

Henry, who is the member of parliament for Central Clarendon, raised the issue of intellectual property with regard to the purchase of lands at Orange Grove in Trelawny, which housed the Outameni Experience heritage attraction.

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, in responding to questions from Opposition Leader Andrew Holness, said the National Housing Trust (NHT), despite spending $180 million for the nine-acre property, did not purchase Outameni Experience.

What the prime minister did not tell the nation was that it would take another $20 million to buy the chattels, intellectual property, script and props, to allow for the re-opening of the Experience. Henry, whose knowledge of intellectual property is well respected, argued correctly that the $180-million investment could be in jeopardy because of the nature of the purchase.

Economic Problem

"Outameni has run into an economic problem. It has run into it because it is making an interpretation of those rights in a live show. Anybody can make the Outameni Experience by a slide show. If you are not purchasing the business then you are really going to end up with the land," Henry said.

He further argued that based on what Simpson Miller told Parliament, the past owners could go down the road and buy five areas and open Outameni, which would be in competition with the investment.

"I want to be clear that we have protected the investment," Henry said.

Prime Minister Simpson Miller could go a far way in restoring her credibility among Jamaicans who have downgraded her as a result of her answers to Holness's questions by making a full statement on the issue during Tuesday's sitting of Parliament.

With an internal memorandum showing that the NHT instructed the closure of the Outameni Experience on July 23, 2013, Simpson Miller has a duty to return to Parliament to remove any suspicion that there is a cover-up at play. The prime minister claimed that she only became aware of the purchase after it was carried in the media on October 29.

The transfer of the title was on May 27, 2013 and official possession took place on July 23.

The internal memorandum, dated September 1, 2014, sent by acting managing director, Martin Miller, to the finance committee of the Trust, betrays the fact that the NHT thought it had purchased the entire attraction - property and all - but then found out that it had not bought the intellectual property.

Now the NHT, which has only purchased the lands, can find itself facing competition as Lennie Little-White can open another attraction nearby to compete with the Trust's new fad.

Based on the drip of information making its way to public attention, it seems that the NHT, having agreed to purchase the Orange Valley property, wanted nothing to do with the attraction. It seems it was willing to count its losses.

However, Little-White, having got the NHT where he wanted it - having now closed the agreement - warned the housing entity to keep his baby alive.

"This transaction begs for another scandal when the public learns that the NHT purchased the property for hundreds of millions of dollars and has now chosen to dismantle the attraction. The site is a built heritage attraction which was architecturally designed to house this specific concept. It has limited usage otherwise," Little-White wrote last year in a letter to then managing director, Cecile Watson.

Clearly, he has got the best of both worlds. He was successful in selling his nine-acre property for $180 million, and has backed the NHT into a corner where it cannot close Outameni. In this way, he is guaranteed another $20 million for intellectual property rights.

With all of this happening around her, Simpson Miller's best bet in dealing with the current problem is to request a full brief from the NHT board and make a fulsome statement in the House.

Send the Clearest Signal

Recognising, however, that the auditor general is now probing the matter, Simpson Miller must send the clearest signal that the entity, which falls under her watch, will not be a stumbling block in the way of the investigations. She must also clear the air on whether the Trust will be buying the rights associated with the Outameni Experience. This is of particular importance since Little-White, as Henry pointed out, can go a few miles down the road and take a second shot at a business that failed.

But while the prime minister prepares her statement, which we hope will be made sooner rather than later, The Gavel hopes that Ed Bartlett, the chairman of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), will summon the NHT management to Parliament.

The NHT had appeared before the committee and was asked to return with better information. The time is now for this committee hearing, especially in light of a $1.5-billion shortfall in its planned expenditure.

Take for example the fact that the NHT, under its First Step Housing Programme, had budgeted to spend $72 million within the first four months, only $14 million of that amount was spent. This programme is aimed at providing housing solutions to some of the poorest Jamaicans, particularly contributors earning up to $7,500 per week.

First Step homes are constructed at a cost of approximately $1.1 million each, excluding land and major infrastructure works. The unit is a super studio with floor area of 29.7 metres (320 sq ft), and adequate facilities for expansion.

Under this programme, 600 First Step homes are to be provided per year over a five-year period to low-income earners. But instead of focusing on delivering these homes, the Trust seems to be caught up in activities outside its remit such as the purchasing and operations of theme parks.

Aside from the area of joint-ventures, where it had budgeted to spend $6 million during the period and the out-turn has been $43 million, the housing expenditure of the Trust thus far is out of line with its own projections. Projects such as the Inner-City Housing Programme and sugar housing should have seen $473 million expended but only $118 million has been spent in those areas.

All told, housing disbursements for the four-month period was below the budget by $1.4 billion. This, the Trust says, was mainly due to the lower-than-anticipated disbursements on the Small Contractors Programme, the Inner-city and Community Renewal Programme and slow daily intake as it relates to open market loans.

The PAAC should focus its attention fully on these matters to ensure the NHT is able to fulfill its mandate to the Jamaican people.

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