By O. Dave Allen
Editor’s Note: Except for our editorials on these pages, the views expressed in this correspondence to us do not necessarily reflect our view and way of thinking.
There was a time when the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce was the most respected and the most powerful voice of civil society in Western Jamaica. It was a mover and shaker and a force to be reckoned with in influencing public policy. In those days, the Chamber spoke for and on behalf of business, in the interest of business, with membership drawn from the business class. The Chamber was respected as an equal partner with the State in setting out and advancing the development agenda of Montego Bay.
Let us suspend our middle class pretenses and the romantic notion that in those days, the Chamber spoke for the ordinary Montegonian. The benefits derived by the masses from their undertaking were incidental. Also, we shouldn’t be pretentious or hypocritical as to think they spoke for or on behalf of the working class, or the micro business sector of Montego Bay. Nevertheless, through a coalition of the business class, led by the Chamber and the political directorate, Montego Bay prospered.
We can well recall the days when the late Dr. Herbert Eldemire was the Member of Parliament for North West St. James, at which time his brother, Dr. Arthur Eldemire, was President of the Chamber and Tony Hart, as well as Clifford Delisser, were Councillors in the St. James Parish Council. This coalition was able to leverage influence in the halls of power to the extent that the parish was dubbed the Republic of St. James.
The Montego Bay waterfront was developed; Freeport was conceptualized and Cornwall Regional Hospital was built. During those days, the first industrial parks were created at Bogue and Lower Bevin Avenue.
The Chamber continued to provide strong leaders under Gordon Marzouca, and later by Presidents Lee Bailey and Val Lo Bianca, who championed the lobby to establish the headquarters for the United Nations Seabed Authority in Montego Bay. President Ripton McPherson pioneered the Greater Montego Bay Redevelopment Company in coalition with the Chamber, the Custos and Mayor Arthur Gilchrist. They crafted the first participatory, people-centred sustainable development plan for Montego Bay along with urban-planner, Arlene Dixon.
Today, the Chamber is neither fish nor fowl, pale and insignificant like characters in search of an author, a glorified service club, weak and ineffective, a poor and spurious replica of its former self. It has been reduced to a sycophant and a mouthpiece to assuage and stroke the ego of the ruling party.
The Montego Bay business elite no longer need the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce as a platform to advance their agenda, for while they maintain membership through their surrogates and proxies, they wield power from the board room through their well-paid stooges in Parliament and their local intermediaries. The new Chinese business community, with their wrecking ball, has little or no interest in civil society, yet they remain a growing powerhouse group that dominates and controls the commercial activities in the urban centre.
NEW BREED OF ENTREPRENEURS
It could be fortuitous that the current leadership of the Chamber is dominated by the sons and daughters of the working class. They have the power and opportunity to act in the interest of their class or betray it. They have the option to repurpose the Chamber of Commerce by addressing the long held inequities and to protect native industry and the emerging breed of new entrepreneurs. Some Chinese commercial interests have decimated the local commercial activities and have posed a serious threat to the survival of what is left of locally owned businesses. The new Chamber of Commerce could inherit a powerful platform that could be used to advance a decent work agenda and to give support to the nascent manufacturing sector, particularly the artisans and the furniture and the manufacturing sector, along with the small and micro enterprises.
For if Crichton Brothers, once the dominant players in the hardware business, are shuttered, can Discount Lumber be far behind? The autoparts businesses located on Jarrett, Tate, McCatty and Thompson Streets cannot be comfortable with the ever-expanding Asian tsunami as it spreads its tentacles, intent on engulfing local enterprises. Now more than ever, Montego Bay needs strong and uncompromising leadership in the Chamber to protect and defend the interests of local businesses.
Former Chamber President, Gloria Henry, in 2015, was the first casualty for confronting the 80-pound gorilla in the room, when she called for a boycott of Chinese businesses for not contributing to the social development of Montego Bay. She was viciously attacked by the then Opposition Member of Parliament, Dr. Horace Chang, for targeting an ethnic group.
That took place in September and by April the following year, she was unceremoniously removed from office.
BOGUE LANDS – POLITICAL VENDETTA
Of interest, there is an advertisement published in the local newspaper announcing the Annual General Meeting of the Montego Bay Chamber, scheduled to take place on April 25, 2019. On the said page contiguous to the advertisement is a notice by the St. James Municipal Corporation with a veiled threat to 26 occupants of Bogue lands for them to pay over 71 million dollars for back rent for the property they have occupied since 1998. This is an issue of serious concern that a progressive Chamber of Commerce should use its considerable leverage to protect the interests of these small and medium sized operators who are doing what they ought to be doing – providing goods and services, creating jobs and paying their taxes.
This is an urgent undertaking that the Chamber needs to address to justify their existence as a legitimate organization committed to the advancement of commerce and industry. The Chamber needs to demand an affirmative action on the part of government, for the local businesses are not operating on a level playing field.
The St. James Municipal Corporation is not a realtor, neither are they in the rent-collecting business. Their task in the neo-liberal capitalist system is to transfer economic factors under their control to the private sector. Their role is regulatory and the provision of municipal services to create an environment that is conducive for businesses to grow and flourish.
The underlying issue at Bogue lands is a political vendetta, an old score that the Council wishes to settle. We must never allow ourselves to be blinded by our partisan political allegiance.