Vernamfield planners piggyback on Haiti crisis
... But Gov't says aerodrome cash hunt not tied to quake relief
Mark Titus, Business Reporter
There is evidence that in the early days of the January 12 earthquake disaster in Haiti, planners of a project to build an air-cargo trans-shipment hub at Vernamfield in Clarendon, slated to cost US$1 billion or J$89.7 billion, had pegged hopes of sourcing international and local funding to kick-start the build-out of the facility to the catastrophe in the populous Caribbean state.
In the early aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake which flattened much of the Haitian capital city, Port-au-Prince, and claimed more than 230,000 lives, a proposal was put before the Government for Jamaican and foreign donors to be tapped for cash to transform the abandoned airfield into the chief temporary support base for humanitarian supplies destined for the earthquake-ravaged country.
A document obtained by Sunday Business, outlined the concept, drawn up in the
early stages of the crisis, for the immediate development and one-year use of the Vernamfield facility as a staging post for moving humanitarian aid to Haiti. It would also carry a short-term 1,000- or 1,500-bed field hospital, temporary warehouses and a sorting centre for relief supplies.
The document, sources say, had been presented to government officials for their consideration.
While saying the facility would be a temporary national goodwill gesture, the planners maintained in the proposal that any permanent structures to be built must be consistent with the long-term use of the land and should conform to the ultimate intention to set up what has been described as a multimodal transport trans-shipment centre.
Dubbed 'Air-bridge to the world', the plan recommended that the European Union, United Nations among other international organisations, as well as local donors, be tapped to raise the cash needed to develop the infrastructure and acquire equipment such as ambulances, buses, cars and minivans for the 'humanitarian airbase'. It cited, too, the need for refuelling trucks, aircraft tugs, ground power units, forklifts, refrigerated containers and flatbed trucks.
While acknowledging that any international assistance would go a long way in assisting the long-term plan for the Vernamfield development project, Minister of Transport and Works, Mike Henry told
that the project was not dependent on the Haiti-linked proposal.
"Vernamfield is now in the world marketplace for investment. We are talking to business people to give them a massive investment activity," Henry said. He declined to comment on reports of interest being shown in the project by Asian and European investors.
It is understood that Cabinet had previously instructed the Port Authority to acquire the Vernamfield lands, after which an implementing vehicle, the Vernamfield development company, was to be formed. Earlier plans for a series of community consultations to alert residents of the area about the possibility of being relocated to facilitate the project were postponed.
It is also not immediately clear if the humanitarian-base proposal has been shelved or whether the idea was taken up with any of the proposed funding entities. But the author of the document had underscored the need for quick action before the window of opportunity closed.
"I would urge that Jamaica be prepared to implement this plan within two or three weeks by mobilising resources in a manner similar to the repairing of the Bog Walk gorge after the tropical storm in 2008," the proposal read.
"Beyond this timeline, the urgency of the international response will diminish signifi-cantly," it stressed.
The stated benefits of the proposal included reducing congestion at the airport in Port-au-Prince, easing the burden on Haiti's hospitals and creating employment for Jamaicans living in the Vernamfield area.
"It will represent a tangible contribution to the Haiti relief effort by CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) and other donors that are now being denied entry (into Haiti)," the documentation for the plan noted, even as it accepted that the proposal would "re-establish a national aerodrome asset which can eventually be transformed for future commercial use".
Suggesting that temporary housing could be constructed in the area for relief workers and containers used to erect a temporary tower, the proposal noted the need for the International Civil Aviation Authority's green light for the planning and development of the aerodrome even as a humanitarian relief centre operated by the military.
Located on a property of about 1,773 hectares or 2,900 acres in south-western Clarendon, Vernamfield has long been the pet project of the transport minister who is also the parliamentary representative for the area even before his political party formed the Government in 2007.
During World War II, the facility was used as a United States military airbase. The plans for its revitalisation will include being an air-cargo hub, airline maintenance facility, headquarters for the Jamaica Defence Force air Wing and full outfitting as the island's third international airport.