Continued shuttering of Dragon Bay Resort pains Portland residents
Almost 14 years after one of the island's leading hotel chains, the Gordon 'Butch' Stewart-led Sandals Group, acquired the Dragon Bay Resort in Portland and promised to transform it into "the Caribbean's most luxurious resort", the 99-room facility remains closed, much to the chagrin of residents of the parish, who say the continued closure has sent them to the brink of financial ruin.
Stewart had purchased the property from former owners Alberta Abela Corporation and SSI Cayman International, and had proposed at the time that he would spend up to US$65 million to transform the property. But to residents, the closed facility belies that promise.
"From 2004 it lock down and from it lock, the whole place turn into a ghost town because nothing else is going on," said businesswoman Herfa Ainsley, who told The Sunday Gleaner that her small shop had been seriously affected by the closure of the hotel.
"When the hotel did open, oh gosh, man! The place used to lively, money used to make because you had three shifts of workers coming on and off and they used to buy their rum and cigarettes, their bun and cheese, and even buy things for the guests. But now, God bless the little money that I make. The place is just dead," said Ainsley.
The lack of activity at the hotel's premises was apparent as only two emaciated dogs and a chicken searching for food were seen along the shrub-covered roadway outside the property's closed gates when our news team visited last week.
The lone security guard seen there said the facility still employed a skeleton staff on the compound.
"There are about 13 people who come here daily to maintain the grounds, so it's not run down, but there is nobody staying here," she said.
But to Levar Patterson, the 13 jobs at the shuttered hotel are a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds who once found employment there.
"I started working there from schooldays as an apprentice in the kitchen, cooking for the guests, and is about 300 people used to work over there. But if you drive around, you will see those same workers sitting around doing nothing. Them life mash up because they had a comfortable job and now they barely living hand-to-mouth," said Patterson.
He argued that the fallout from the hotel's closure not only affects those who were directly employed, but the entire community.
"You see when the hotel open, you see taxi up and down 'bout them time here when the staff shifts change over and money a make every corner you turn and everybody happy, but now, look, you hardly even see a car pass on the road. The whole place depressed," said a dejected Patterson.
"Mi can't really say nothing to Mr Butch, but me would just want you ask him when him a go open back the hotel because a more than enough time pass now for it to be open and the place get back it buzz again."
The newly appointed mayor of Port Antonio, Wayne McKenzie, also expressed his concern regarding the continued closure of Dragon Bay.
"We are equally concerned about the fact that it has been closed for so long. Prior to its closure, it was the most promising hotel in terms of employment in the parish, so it has been a major concern to us for quite a while now," McKenzie told The Sunday Gleaner.
While admitting that he had not had direct discussions with Stewart, McKenzie acknowledged that he had heard in the past that it was the lack of infrastructure in the parish which had caused renovation plans for the hotel to be put on hold.
"We know the developer had complained at one stage about the challenge to move around the parish due to the poor road conditions, especially between Ocho Rios and Port Antonio, but those have improved significantly since then.
"I also know there was some talk about the inadequacy of the Ken Jones Aerodrome as well, but to be honest, we really don't know what is the mindset of the owners of the property at this time," said McKenzie, as he indicated that the parish council is ready to meet with Stewart to listen to his concerns and seek to address them "because we want the hotel up and running again".
Efforts to get a comment from the Sandals Group have so far been unsuccessful, but Stewart has, in the past, argued that the planned expenditure to upgrade the facility would not make sense until the Government upgrades the aerodrome and improves the infrastructure in the parish.