Sun | Jan 29, 2023

Carolyn Cooper | Rockfort Mineral Bath at risk of development

Published:Sunday | December 4, 2022 | 12:45 AM

A couple of weeks ago, one of my friends sent an email with this subject line, “My favourite activist …” She asked, “Do you know if the Cement Company plans to expand towards Rockfort mineral bath closing it off permanently? I’d be heartbroken especially as it should be one of our national treasures!” My friend did not know that the Rockfort Mineral Bath was declared a national monument in 1992. The property, which includes the remains of a fort, is actually owned by the office of the Commissioner of Lands. It was leased to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT), which, in turn, leased it to the Caribbean Cement Company Ltd (CCCL).

The JNHT website tells the story of the fort: “Located at what was once called Harbour Head. [sic] Rockfort was first fortified as protection against the possibility of a French invasion from Santo Domingo under the command of Ducasse in 1694. With the earthquake which destroyed most of Port Royal and its fortification, the eastern end of the city was now vulnerable to attack. It then became important for Rockfort to be properly protected so the Assembly in 1753 voted £300 for its defence and another £500 in 1755.”

According to the JNHT, it is popularly believed that the 1907 earthquake, which devastated Kingston, caused mineral water to buss out of the mountain above the harbour. That’s the fountainhead of the Rockfort Mineral Bath. Springing from disaster! The therapeutic water has been a source of healing for generations of Jamaicans. I used to go to the bath every single week.

The bath was closed in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic and still has not reopened. It is undergoing major ‘development’, which is taking a very long time. Why couldn’t renovations have been done during the pandemic when construction work was exempted from lockdown? The management does not seem to realise just how much the bath is missed, especially by senior citizens who are convinced that the mineral water is a cure for arthritis. According to Olive Senior’s Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage, the water at Rockfort is even more radioactive than that at the mineral bath in St Thomas. It’s such a powerful force.

COMFORTING PROMISES

Before the bath closed almost three years ago, the entry fees were $500 for adults up to 54; $350 for senior citizens 55 and older; $350 for children between four and 12; and no charge for children under four years. God only knows what the fees will be after ‘development’. Neither the JNHT nor the CCCL was able to give an approximate figure when I spoke to representatives last week. Both Mrs Michele Creed Nelson, executive director of the JNHT, and Mr Chad Bryan, communications and social impact coordinator at the CCCL, made comforting promises that the new entry fees would not be prohibitive. But what’s the guarantee?

Of course, patrons of the Rockfort Mineral Bath are quite happy to pay a reasonable entry fee. But that single source of income will never be enough to cover major renovations and recurring operating costs. Recreational facilities like the Rockfort Mineral Bath, as well as public beaches, should not be seen primarily as profit-making enterprises. They should be conceived as providing an essential therapeutic service. They are a social good. They must be funded largely through government spending. For example, the Tourism Enhancement Fund ought to be investing in the Rockfort Mineral Bath, which is such a valuable resource for both local and international tourists.

FORT CLARENCE BEACH

I’m always very suspicious when I hear the word ‘development’ applied to recreational facilities owned and/or operated by the Government of Jamaica. It’s a familiar story. A government agency decides that a particular facility is not a moneymaking entity. It therefore leases the property to a private sector company that promises to turn it into a money-spinner. The property is ‘developed’ and priced out of the reach of the usual patrons. This is precisely what has happened to Fort Clarence Beach.

The Urban Development Corporation of Jamaica (UDC) used to operate the beach. The entrance fee was $250 for adults and $100 for children. The beach has now been leased to Guardsman Hospitality Ltd (GHL) and the fees have gone up dramatically. It’s $1,000 for adults and $500 for children. The percentage increase in the fee for children, 400 per cent, is even higher than for adults, 300 per cent. How can this be reasonable? I guess GHL didn’t want to be bothered to make change of $100, if they charged children $400. But for a large family, all of those one hundred dollars would add up to the entry fee for another child.

It appears as if the policymakers at the UDC are quite satisfied with these developments. In a letter to the editor, published in The Gleaner on May 25, 2017, Dr Damian Graham, short-lived general manager of the UDC, claimed that the corporation’s “long-term vision for Fort Clarence is to be the premier beach park serving the Kingston Metropolitan Area, complete with first world amenities and attractions for the entire family. The UDC remains committed to this vision and will choose the most appropriate process in achieving it.”

How can Fort Clarence Beach possibly serve the Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA) with entrance fees that are out of the reach of the majority of residents of the KMA? Was leasing the property to Guardsman Hospitality Ltd the UDC’s “most appropriate” choice? Even middle-class Jamaicans are squealing at the increase. Most of us who go to the beach regularly don’t want “first world amenities and attractions”. We don’t want a swimming pool and a floating plastic water park. Or dolphins messing up the water!

We want first-class Jamaican facilities: competent lifeguards; clean toilets and changing rooms; adequate garbage bins; shops selling local food; and the option to take our own meals to the beach. We want to preserve the authentic Jamaican beach experience. Not just for ourselves but also for adventurous tourists who appreciate our ‘undeveloped’ culture. That’s our competitive advantage. Policymakers like those at the UDC need to learn how to distinguish between underdevelopment, development and overdevelopment. Just think about what has happened to Negril!

Politicians don’t seem to understand the power of recreation as a crime-fighting measure. There is a lot of talk about the reduction of gun violence during the Football World Cup. If this is, indeed, true we need to find ways to use sport as therapy all year round. I keep wondering if a lot of the seemingly arbitrary gun violence in our society is actually the result of boredom, plain and simple. Young men with nothing better to do just shooting up the place for entertainment! Perhaps, what they need is a dip in a healing stream, both literal and symbolic.

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a teacher of English language and literature and a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and karokupa@gmail.com.