Erica Virtue, Senior Gleaner Writer
The world-famous Milk River Hotel and Spa is falling apart and desperately in need of a makeover. For years, the Government has dithered over plans to spend millions to refurbish the facility which houses a mineral spa that has 54 times the strength of the minerals of Switzerland's renowned ultra-luxurious Limmathof Baden Hotel & Spa, and 50 times that of the Vichy spa in the south of France.
A plan to divest the facility was also put on the table by the Jamaica Labour Party administration before it was voted out in December 2011, but since the People's National Party was voted in there has been no word on the fate of the facility.
Now it is an ugly facility with signs of rust in some areas.
Its lifeless and bland external appearance is a turn-off for those seeking help from the miracle waters of this natural spring which has drawn hundreds of thousands since 1794.
In 2008, then Tourism Minister Edmond Bartlett announced a plan for an extreme makeover of the facility, with $150M to be spent, but this never got off the ground.
"Although it was before my time, Milk River was never rehabilitated. I understand that a paint job was done courtesy of an allocation from the Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF)," said Diane Sommerville, manager of the facility.
"The funding turned out to be less than what was announced and the bath, which was damaged during Hurricane Dean, was refurbished.
"Other than the paint job, the place looks the same way it has looked since 2008," Sommerville told The Sunday Gleaner.
No fiscal space
Last week, Bartlett also admitted that the planned refurbishment was reduced to a bare minimum because "the fiscal space was not available".
"The plan was for more than $100M to do refurbishing of Milk River and Bath (St Thomas). Then what happened to us, with all the nice plans that we had for projects, fiscal consolidation came and suddenly all the money just disappeared," said Bartlett.
"All the money just went into the central treasury management, so nothing could be done. Then, the Government decided that it would divest this (Milk River Hotel and Spa) and some other such facilities and attractions," stated the former tourism minister.
Bartlett said in the case of Milk River "all we ended having to do is some basic little fix up".
But even that paint job is now faded and is crying out for a fresh coat.
Unattractive old furniture is everywhere, except the lobby, which was given a facelift. The administrative offices are the same as they were in 1794.
"Up to when we left office, both of them, (Milk River Spa and Bath Fountain in St Thomas) were slated for divestment. I don't know what this new Government will do. I don't think that those things can change, however, as the objective conditions that gave rise to the decision to divest is worse now than it was before," said Bartlett.
Tourism Minister Dr Wykeham McNeill agreed that the facility is in need of upgrading, even as he argued that both administrations have made attempts to divest it.
"St Thomas Bath and Milk River Hotel and Spa are wellness facilities, which have not kept up with the times. We want to position them for a certain market, but it has to have significant infrastructural development and investment. So I have asked the board to present me with a plan," said McNeill.
"We are looking at joint venture, divestment, lease or public-private partnership as options to make it attractive to the market so that it best accomplishes the goal of catering to the needs of Jamaicans here and in the diaspora, and visitors from all over the world," added McNeill.
He said he would love if Baden-Baden, the international and exclusive thermal-spa resort, located at the foothills of the Black Forest in the south-western part of Germany, would add its label to the Clarendon-based facility.
"There is a market for the services of Milk River, but I believe that the market will be significantly greater if we get it to world-class standards."
Last week, the management of the facility, which is nestled at the foot of Carpenter's Mountain on the south-western tip of Clarendon, expressed hope that a long-prepared redevelopment plan will be implemented.
"A business plan is in place. We just need to pull it from the file 13, dust it off and jump on it," suggested Sommerville.
She said any redevelopment must take in the building called 'The Ark', which was damaged and has not been used since Hurricane Dean which affected the island in 2007.
When The Sunday Gleaner visited the Milk River Hotel and Spa last Tuesday, it was two days after the rains associated with Tropical Storm Isaac lashed sections of the island.
Watermarks in the courtyard of the facility indicated that the spa had come under water, but this was less than when Hurricane Dean passed by.
At that time, visitors to the facility were trapped as the Milk River overflowed its bank.
"It happens all the time there is heavy rains. The river overflows its banks and floods the roadways and settles in the driveway. Within 24 hours it is usually gone. So river training is the problem, but river training should not hold back refurbishment," argued Sommerville.
She pointed to one good sign, the significant road improvement which has taken place in the area in recent time.
Bad roads have often inhibited persons seeking a soak in the healing stream, but this time around, the drive to the facility was relatively smooth.
Photos by Ian Allen /Photographer