Despite their sojourn in the wilderness of neglect for decades, members of the business community in Port Antonio are expressing confidence that present developments will serve as a catalyst for further investment in the resort town.
“Port Antonio is a natural, but there is no development,” said Gavin Graham. “My business has been surviving only because it has been a part of this community for the past 25 years.”
“If I was to depend on tourists or local visitors to survive I would be forced to close my doors a long time ago, because while they know that Portie is a wonderful place, nobody wants to wreck their vehicle to come here, so the greatest thing that could happen to us is the North Coast Highway.”
Port Antonio in its heyday was the busiest port in the Caribbean and the second most importanttown in the country. As the birthplace of tourism and with a thriving banana export market, the resort parish was poised to become one of the region’s leading commercial hubs.
Turned their backs
Any possibility was, however, stifled by the failure to capitalise on the town’s early promise. Almost literally turning their backs on the parish and choosing to concentrate on the promotion of townships such as Negril, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay as premier tourism destinations, those powers with Jamaica’s development at heart have caused Portland to suffer a slow, painful demise.
Donald Rhodd, member of Parliament for East Portland, believes that the lack of appreciation for holistic planning contributed to the town’s downfall. “I think where it all went wrong was that people just thought that they could get by from day to day by just dealing with the immediate, and not looking at the medium and long term,” he said.
“There was not a vision then as to how the world, the rest of Jamaica was moving that we could position ourselves to take advantage of opportunities, which would come forward.”
Patrick Lee, one of the leading entrepreneurs in the region, says successive governments have blundered in not taking advantage of the town’s natural infrastructure but even he expects a rebirth once proposed developments are complete.
“I think the proposed developments will enhance business in the town,” he said, “especially with the improvement of the road network, I do expect that business will improve.”
Presently, a major rehabilitation of the road network is being carried out from Ocho Rios to Port Antonio; the North Coast Highway project involves the reconstruction of the existing road alignment, curve flattening, repair of old bridges, and the construction of new roads and improved drainage systems.
Lanza Edwards, another longstanding business operator, says even without other important developments, an improved road network opens a new world of possibilities.
“Tour operators throughout Jamaica know about the reputation of Port Antonio as a tourist destination, but have been discouraged by the poor road surface, but we can now look for bigger and better things,” he said.
“A number of our young people have graduated from our high schools, but still cannot get any employment, but with the kind of plans that are being placed on the table, we expect that there will be an improvement in that area as well,” he said.
Homeboy billionaire, Michael Lee Chin, has led from the front in the drive to restore the ‘forgotten jewel of the Caribbean’ by purchasing the luxurious Trident Villas and Hotel, which is being refurbished to the tune of US$15 million (J$ 1.08 billion), the acquisition of the famous Blue Lagoon property, partnering with the Port Authority of Jamaica to develop the picturesque Navy Island, as well as rebuild the Titchfield Hotel which was gutted by fire in the 1960s.
This will complement the much underutilised Errol Flynn Marina, which was opened in 2002. The transformation of the Titchfield peninsula is also big on Lee Chin’s agenda, and he is determined to preserve the remnants of Georgian architecture in his boyhood community.
To complement all of this development, a new water and sewage system will be needed, and, according to Dr Rhodd, plans for this are advanced.
“A study was done which recognises that there is going to be tremendous new needs for new wells and a larger drainage and sewerage system and we are now in the process of constructing these facilities,” said Dr Rhodd.
Dale Westin, general manager of the Errol Flynn Marina, said the completion of segment three of the North Coast Highway would be ‘a big plus’, but he would also love to see the rehabilitation of the Ken Jones Aerodrome.
“The aerodrome would be even better, because a number of the owners of yachts that have expressed interest in coming here also own private jets and to ask them to take the three-hour trip from Kingston is a big negative for us,” he told the Financial Gleaner. “But I do expect that activity at the marina will increase,” he added.
Expected positive spin-offs
The acquisition of the 99-room Dragon Bay hotel by the Gordon Butch Stewart-owned Sandals Resorts International and its prospected conversion into ‘the Caribbean’s most exquisite spa resort’ is another development that the business community expects to have positive spin-offs for businesses.
However, Dexter Roland, former deputy mayor and councillor for the Port Antonio division, said that while the anticipation was high among a large section of the business community, those who had taken the wait-and-see approach needed to get on board in the early stages of development.