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Super boost for a sleepy town - Christmas Extravaganza pulls thousands to Black River

Published:Sunday | October 11, 2015 | 10:00 AMMel Cooke
George 'GT' Taylor.
From left: Bounty Killer, Beenie Man and Cham sharing the stage to the delight of patrons at a past GT Christmas Extravaganza show.
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While Jamaica celebrated the tourism industry last week, in Black River, the residents enjoy their tourism week around Christmas Day, when an annual event lures visitors to a sleepy seaside town.

Black River, the St Elizabeth capital, pays the financial toll for being easily bypassed by road, unlike the much busier Santa Cruz, which is an easy drive up or down Spur Tree Hill from mid-island hub Mandeville.

And while Treasure Beach enjoys a villa and small hotel culture along its seaside, Black River has not developed an equivalent on Parottee Bay.

Once a year, though, the GT Taylor Christmas Extravaganza brings in an influx of visitors from across Jamaica and foreigners - especially those vacationing in Negril - to its home at Independence Park, giving Black River a financial spike and boost in name recognition.

Taylor, who also currently heads the St Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, said the extravaganza, which will mark its 15th staging on Christmas Day 2015, was designed to do just that.

"In that community, where I live, one Christmas I was there and had Christmas dinner with the family. We decided to go out and see what's happening. My wife and I decided to go on the street.

"We did not hear of anything happening, but we wanted to go out. There was nothing happening. We started to drive through the town, through the parish, and there was nothing happening," said Taylor.

That drive took them through Santa Cruz and Junction, hubs of activity in St Elizabeth. "I said to her, 'You know, Christmas night needs something'," said Taylor "For although there was a dance here and there, there was nothing of a magnitude that you would say everybody would want to gravitate to."

CONFLICT

However, in the late 1990s there was a conflict of involvements for Taylor, who is a long-standing member of the IRIE FM team. At the time, the radio station was hosting the White River Reggae bash on Christmas night. So he chose to start the Extravaganza on Christmas Eve.

On air, Taylor is known as 'The Dancehall Master', and he started the event true to his name, beginning with sound systems at the Hendricks Wharf. Playing at that event were top sound systems Black Scorpio, Bodyguard and Stone Love.

When the White River Reggae Bash was discontinued, with the blessing of IRIE, Taylor shifted to Christmas Day and also went to a concert format.

There was another shift, out of the town to Font Hill Beach Park, then back into Black River at its current Independence Park home.

"I wanted it to be at Independence Park," Taylor said. "It is one of the original show grounds in Jamaica," he said, naming Dennis Brown among those who performed there on a stage-show circuit that once dominated in Jamaica. "I wanted to bring Independence Park back to its glory. I remember people from all over wanting to go to Independence Park. I had some great times there, emceeing shows and so on."

It was also a matter of wanting to bring back energy to Black River, something which Taylor believes he has done. With enquiries starting in about August each year, Taylor said it is an event which Jamaicans who live abroad, who are returning home for the holidays, look forward to, as well as tourists who are in the island during the busy winter season.

SPIN-OFFS

There are spin-offs not only on show day, but preceding it, as persons shop in Black River in preparation for the Extravaganza. There are also those who make the event the centrepiece of spending a few days in the town, booking rooms and visiting attractions such as the Safari tours along the river for which the St Elizabeth capital is named. "The few hotels are booked out," Taylor said.

Added to this are the tourists who are brought in by shuttle from Negril.

"Black River is not known for a lot of hotels, but you have a lot of bed and breakfast places. Everybody is doing business. You are talking from the man in the street to stores. Everybody!" Taylor emphasised.

"It is a commerce event for Black River," he said, adding that it lifts the town back into the public's consciousness. From audiences of about 1,500 persons in earlier years to over 10,000 at high points, the GT Taylor Christmas Extravaganza has grown significantly.

The show's origins and impact have a lot to do with Taylor keeping the Extravaganza in Black River. "I get a lot of offers and people saying elsewhere 'move the show, why don't you carry the show maybe to the North Coast'. Yes, maybe you would get a bigger crowd, but I am die-hearted. I built that show for St Elizabeth, for Black River, so I say there is where it is supposed to be, and there is where it is going to stay," said Taylor.