High hopes for Denbigh
Having lived and worked in May Pen, Clarendon, for the past 40 years, medical doctor Winston Dawes has much more than a passing interest in the welfare and future of this bustling rural town and the people who populate it. Despite continuing neglect by policymakers, Dawes remains confident that due to its strategic location, May Pen will, in time, catch the eye and interest of serious business investors.
"May Pen has been, over the years, not developed to its potential, [but] it is in the centre of the island; it is at the crossroads for people going east or west ... and we ought to have the Denbigh Showground developed into a theme park where we can demonstrate best practices in agriculture," Dawes said at a Gleaner Job Creation, Investment and Growth Forum, held recently at Hotel Versalles in May Pen.
Owned by the Jamaica Agricultural Society (JAS), the Denbigh Showground occupies 52 acres of prime agricultural land, most of which is idle throughout the year, except for the three consecutive days in summer when the JAS hosts the annual Denbigh Agricultural, Industrial and Food Show, showcasing the largest agricultural display in the English-speaking Caribbean.
Dawes wants to see some level of the strategic planning that results in an excess of 80,000 patrons visiting from across Jamaica, the Caribbean and North America replicated throughout the rest of the year.
Central to the vision of the president of the May Pen Chamber of Commerce is the establishment of a theme park facilitating the demonstration of best practices in agriculture, with complementary healthy-lifestyle activities such as a walking trail and other accessories.
"We could be using it to teach people, in practical ways, hi-tech agriculture techniques such as greenhouse farming, fish farming, shrimp farming, animal husbandry, [along with a] wellness centre, a walking trail where people could come in and relax, and at various little kiosks, (have) people displaying their products for sale," Dawes said. "The whole thing could be a centre of development and we could also have a farmers' market where farmers could get the maximum benefit from their produce."
Dawes' dream for Denbigh may be close to reality, according to Norman Grant, president of the JAS.
He told The Gleaner: "FINSAC (the Financial Sector Adjustment Company) had a lien on the property, which meant that we could not really [take it] to the market to invest in it. The good news is that we have liquidated that obligation since June of 2014. So it's recent, and as such, the property is free and clear. So now we are pushing ahead and will be using this year's show (July 31-August 2) as a catalyst to engage Clarendon to partner with us in the development of the showground."
The long-overdue structured development of the showground will be guided by the Denbigh Development Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the JAS, with the aim of hosting income-generating activities right through out the year. In fact, the transformation process has begun, the JAS president explained.
"We have demolished all of those old restaurants that we had and we are now putting up a state-of-the-art food court, to be named the Roger Clarke Food Court, and it will have about 40 shops which we will rent during Denbigh, but most importantly, these shops will be rented on a year-round basis. The second aspect of it is that, at Gate Three, we are putting in a farmers' market for this Denbigh, which is going to be done now on a year-round basis as part of our efforts."
Grant went on to explain that, in addition to renting office space over the years to the Rural Agricultural Development Authority and the Jamaica 4-H Clubs, which operates a range of training courses for young people, the JAS has been pursuing other business ventures in order to better utilise its vast property on a sustained basis.
"We have the Aviation University of the Caribbean now located at the Denbigh Showground. Yes, yes, helicopters pitch down there, teaching people to fly," he disclosed.
In addition, the Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning has requested additional classroom space for about 250 students, to facilitate expansion of its teaching programme on the property.
So what about Dawes' dream?
"We are looking also to develop a type of wellness park where persons can come in there and do exercises and, of course, the agricultural theme park," Grant shared.
"I think what we want to do is partner with May Pen. I'm talking with the mayor and we are going to be having a community competition to get persons within Clarendon to really be a part of that way going forward as it relates to the Denbigh Showground. So the 52 acres, over the next three to five years, we are going to be expediting a tremendous plan that will not only include the Denbigh Show, but a number of other activities, as part of the thrust to lift the economic activities and life within the May Pen and extended Clarendon communities."