Montego Freeport — driver of growth in the second city

By Shalman

Sunday, May 27, 2018

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'Progredimur Ne Pereamus', translated to the English language and meaning 'Progress Lest We Perish', is inscribed at the bottom of Montego Bay city's crest.

This brief statement sums up succinctly the hope, dreams and determination of the people and its leadership, generally, as this historic city journeyed through countless challenges and its fair share of disasters but remained steadfast in the underlining and reinforcement of its economic progressive development even as it arrived in the 21st century.

Montego Freeport Limited (MFL), the brainchild of businessman extraordinaire and internationally respected entrepreneur, son of the soil Tony Hart, has since its incorporation become a multimodal driver of Montego Bay's and Jamaica's granular development. MFL was incorporated as a public company in Jamaica on February 15, 1966 and applied to the Government of Jamaica for the right to reclaim submerged and semi-submerged Government land by dredging operations and to develop, construct upon, operate, lease or sell those lands through its comprehensive development programme.

The prime objective of MFL was the reclamation and development of 350 acres of land in the Bogue area now known as Montego Freeport.

The company started trading on the Jamaica Stock Exchange on January 5, 1969. In October 1982 the Government, led by then Prime Minister Edward Seaga, acquired 61 per cent of the shares in MFL from Prudential Group Inc, and the Government appointed the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) as itS nominee to receive the transfer of shares.

In 1986, additional shares were issued to the UDC. The UDC's shareholding increased to 82 per cent. The company has in excess of 1,600 shareholders.

As early as 1967, Tony Hart began to face opposition from then Minister of Finance Seaga, who advised Prime Minister Hugh Lawson Shearer that the proposed project could not work for the following reasons: (1) Too much mud was in the basin of the seaport; (2) Cliffs in the north (mountains overlooking MoBay — Kempshot, John's Hall, Kensington etc) would erode and block the harbour; (3) the rivers, particularly Montego River, would deposit silt at the entrance to the harbour.

Prime Minister Shearer went with his finance minister's advice, Tony Hart and his directors on the board could not get approval for the project.

Politically, internal and external pressure began to mount with some high-ranking personages within the party taking a very strong stand in support of the project. Prime Minister Shearer called a meeting with Tony Hart and his team comprising Arthur Pareno of an engineering firm from New York, USA and Hugh Hart's legal counsel, Ellis “Ted” Chingos — a developer of international repute. This meeting was attended by then Governor of the Bank of Jamaica (BoJ) Mr G Arthur Brown.

The Tony Hart team convinced the BoJ Governor that the project can work, and G Arthur Brown gave permission for the project to go ahead. But the Hart team's hurdles were not over yet as oppositional partisan politics tripped in, discouraging people from buying shares in the project as, according to them, it was destined to destroy the fish sanctuary or breeding ground.

One prominent Opposition politician took to the microphone at a public meeting in Sam Sharpe Square (then Charles Square) lambasting the project, even as he declared that the only pier that Montegonians will see in that area for the proposed development will be one from a pear tree.

As it turned out, that very individual was among the 1,600 shareholders and not one with the least amount of shares. With pressures coming from within and without, Tony Hart did not buckle nor cave in, but ran boldly forward with his team the race that was set before them and today they are more than conquerors.

Hart's vision materialised and the city of Montego Bay and our country Jamaica are the better for the establishment of the Montego Freeport project. It is huge — with projection for the building of six berths in all. Five have already been built and the sixth is now being built in the area where the liquified natural gas plant is located.

Of the six berths, two will be for cruise ships and four others for commercial vessels. The service offered by this far-sighted development spans comprehensively a wide area. There is the Free Zone facility incorporating a huge informational technology sector employing thousands of young people as workers.

Hotels are operating within the area providing high-quality service and a variety of employment for Montegonians and within and without western Jamaica.

Manufacturing was one of the earliest avenues for jobs for people with the requisite skill sets. There are residential facilities of the highest quality in an atmosphere of peacefulness and calmness unprecedented to most other places. And, of course, not the least of which are shipping, shopping and restaurant facilities with the swathe of land on the road of Alice Eldemire Drive providing a huge range of services — from banking, insurance, to educational facilities and the subject of security with the large Montego Bay Freeport Police Station strategically located at a critical node on the various throughfares. It not only promotes a heightened sense of security but also traffics discipline along the various corridors.

A year after the second Maroon War in 1796, two events of enormous significance took place in Montego Bay. On May 1, 1796, the town of Montego Bay was accorded for the first time, the status of 'City' with the appellation “Corporation of Montego Bay and the Parish of St James”.

Quick on the heels of this monumental declaration, a most ambitious engineering project was proposed and launched. This was the Close Harbour Mole or Deep Water Harbour for the city. After the project was completed, the mole's plan was to provide protection for the natural channel and inner bay during bad weather. In addition to protecting the coastlines, the moles would assist in providing safe anchorage and reduce damage and destruction which boats were continually blown ashore by “Northers”. These high winds accompanied by heavy seas affect the north coast of Jamaica during the months of November to February. The Close Harbour Mole Company was incorporated the previous year — 1795 — and was the first of its kind in Jamaica and the West Indies. Montego Bay Harbour began to clear 150 cargo and passenger ships per annum.

The close harbour development saw an eruption of construction of buildings on the roadway leading to the harbour with the buzz of activities and its growing significance in economic terms to the city and to Jamaica.

Strand Street was changed to Harbour Street, while George's Street, closest to the market's perimeter wall behind the Cultural Centre in Sam Sharpe Square — the market then being named Albert George Market from which the name George's Street was derived — was changed to Strand Street. This brings us to two major coincidences.

The harbour downtown MoBay was owned by Tony Hart's parents through a company called Hart & Sons Ltd, which was later sold to another prominent family — Fletcher and Company.

The second coincidence was that the authorities were hesitant if not reticent in granting permission to Hart & Son Ltd to develop the project.

To operate a harbour inside the city, it took public marches, some coming as far from Lucea daily to press the case for the Close Harbour, back then to be approved. The two projects the old 1795 and the new 1966 — 171 years apart — led by the same family, have done great things for the city of Montego Bay and for Jamaica.

But there are lessons to be learnt from these two outstanding maritime milestones in the city's history. Suffice to say that city status for Montego Bay lasted only for 70 years, and was acquired earlier and much longer before the city of Kingston in 1872.

The loss of that city status for Montego Bay came immediately after the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865 when members of the National Assembly voted themselves out of Parliament by a voluntary act, the only time in Jamaica's history. And by dissolving themselves through the ballot, the country's Constitution was abolished in 1866 and a new constitution under Crown Colony Government was ushered in under a new Governor, Sir John Peter Grant, known back then as the “Architect of the new Jamaica”.

Several sweeping and monumental changes began in the country. It was his wife who changed the police uniform from short khaki pants and parish militia structure to an integrated national force reflecting the smart combination in the uniform that members of the Jamaica Constabulary force now wear.

On the economic front, in our march through history, Tony Hart is one of the modern architects of the country's growth and development. He intimated to me during an interview that there are three things of national significance that he wishes to see through: (1) the south-bound bypass road for Montego Bay; (2) irrigation of St Elizabeth plains that would feed Jamaica; and (3) beautification of the main highways with flowering trees.

The Ocho Rios to Kingston leg of the highway should be treated with priority, Mr Hart said. Here is a Jamaican who has a lot of success stories to which he can point or tell. Hear ye him! Please.

Political historian Shalman Scott is the first Mayor of the city of Montego Bay

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