Outameni: Lost in time
• Little-White bemoans a dream that turned into a nightmare • Tainted by controversy, future of cultural attraction uncertain
The Outameni Tours and Entertainment Attraction, a sprawling cultural heritage centre in Coopers Pen, Trelawny, where locals and tourists could immerse themselves in Jamaica’s vibrant history and folklore, stands today as a painful reminder of mismanagement and financial waste of the nation’s resources.
In its glory days, the attraction captured poignantly the journey of the Jamaican people – through drama, indigenous dance and music – from struggles to freedom, from the Tainos to present-day Jamaica, and its extensive blend of cultures, a testimony of the country’s motto ‘Out of Many, One People’.
Launched in 2007, the Outameni Experience hired nearly 50 people, including dancers, actors, singers, storytellers, and choreographers, as well as maintenance, security, and administrative personnel, and hosted as many as 800 patrons on its best days.
The brainchild of Jamaican filmmaker Lenbert ‘Lennie’ Little-White and owned by Orange Valley Holdings Limited, the 90-minute tour of the cultural experience was one of the country’s main attractions. But it soon became a financial burden for its owners.
Little-White’s firm became indebted to Capital and Credit Merchant Bank, and its parent company, Jamaica Money Market Brokers Group (JMMB), which sought to sell the property to recover the debt. This followed a period of financial troubles for Orange Valley Holdings, which also saw the former National Investment Bank of Jamaica (NIBJ) pumping US$500,000 into the initiative. This investment was later written off as uncollectable by the Development Bank of Jamaica, which had merged with NIBJ.
“There are several factors why we fell in arrears with our payments to our lenders, but the principal reason was the rapid devaluation of the Jamaican dollar at the time,” Little-White explained to The Sunday Gleaner recently.
“We borrowed in US [currency] at J$40 to US$1, but by the end of construction and opening day, the dollar was devalued to J$77 to US$1.”
Added the conceptualiser and former owner of the Outameni Experience, “Entry prices could not be increased to match bank repayment. Besides, the biggest hotels refused to pay promptly and when they did pay, they sent only Jamaican dollars while they collected US dollars as entry fees.”
LIGHTNING ROD OF CONTROVERSY
In 2013, the attraction became a lightning rod of controversy after the National Housing Trust (NHT) purchased the 10-acre spread for $180 million. Which, according to the People’s National Party (PNP) Government at the time, was heavily discounted because the property was valued at $311 million in 2011 and $280 million in 2013.
The opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) objected to the purchase, noting that investment in attractions was not part of NHT’s mandate. The trust’s objective was to provide housing solutions for Jamaicans, the Opposition insisted.
The Government pushed back, declaring that NHT had bought the property, not the attraction or its assets, which was allowed under the National Housing Trust Act of 1979.
The Outameni controversy raged for quite some time as the NHT explored several options to utilise the property.
The NHT board pointed to the property’s immense heritage value and tourism potential as justification for the purchase but decided against reopening the tour because of the hefty $211 million budget required for the restart.
A WHITE ELEPHANT IN RUINS
Now a white elephant in ruins, the Outameni Experience has remained closed for the past decade, costing taxpayers millions of dollars to maintain.
In October 2019, the NHT revealed that it had expended J$106 million on maintenance since 2013, while $837,300 was paid in property taxes on the land over six years.
The Sunday Gleaner sought to get an update from the trust, including plans for the property, but while Assistant General Manager for Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, Dwayne Berbick, acknowledged receipt of questions sent several weeks ago, there was no response up to press time.
While the front of the property is secured, the broken perimeter fencing allows stray animals to enter and roam.
The neglect and run-down state inside is quite evident and as the sun set on the abandoned park on a recent evening, there was a sense of nostalgia and loss.
The air of excitement during the opening in September 2007, when sector leaders and well-wishers celebrated the unveiling of the highly anticipated cultural offering, has been replaced by a cloud of uncertainty and gloom.
BRINGING LIFE AND MEANING TO THE HERITAGE
The Outameni Experience was inspired by Little-White’s desire to create a parallel to the Cubans’ approach of sharing their history, using costumed actors to dramatise.
“It brought life and meaning to their heritage,” Little-White explained of the Cuban experience. “So creating a parallel drama with music using actors and motion pictures to entertain and educate Jamaicans and visitors about our rich heritage was something that I dreamed of since then.”
He said he had intended to introduce other features such as guided nature trails, aerial cable rides, a boutique restaurant in the 300-year-old great house, and a night-time cabaret of indigenous exotic dances targeting visitors from nearby hotels.
According to former mayor, Councillor Jonathan Bartley, who was chairman of the Trelawny Parish Council at the time, there were high expectations for the new attraction.
“It came with an expectation that the Outameni project was going to be the start of other great developments for the parish. The people were really hopeful,” Bartley told The Sunday Gleaner.
Businessman Dennis Meadows, the PNP’s standard-bearer for Trelawny Northern, where the facility is located, believes that Outameni should be divested to someone willing to preserve Little-White’s vision as well as explore the addition of other amenities, such as a water park, or develop it into a venue for family entertainment.
But Member of Parliament Tova Hamilton believes the constituency has enough tourism products to offer.
“I must try to sort out the low-hanging fruits that I already have issues with getting off the ground, as opposed to an Outameni that would require I don’t know what right now to bring it to some level of functionality,” Hamilton told The Sunday Gleaner.
“I don’t know what that place is about. That is a white elephant.”
Quizzed on whether the NHT had shared its vision for the facility, Hamilton, an attorney-at-law, replied “No, no, no … . NHT is not very responsive to anything, which is unfortunate.”
ENCUMBERED BY CONTROVERSY AND PRICE TAG
Despite efforts in recent years to find a buyer or lessee for the Outameni property, the NHT has failed to offload the lossmaking facility, which includes an office and other buildings, an entertainment area, a four-bedroom Georgian great house, a sugar mill, and a burial ground with graves of past owners.
In a 2019 advertisement, NHT said proposers for lease of the facility had to show “how maintenance of the tourism product, recreational and, if feasible, educational use of the property will be achieved”. It also stipulated that residential use was prohibited.
Little-White believes the controversy over the sale and NHT’s high asking price is a major factor in the Outameni property being an albatross.
“My understanding is that NHT has turned off potential purchasers with their very high asking price,” he told The Sunday Gleaner. “This is a pity, having spent $200 million to acquire the property from JMMB.”
‘VICTIM OF TOO MUCH POLITICS’
Social commentator and publisher Lloyd B. Smith believes a great opportunity was missed to develop a world-class product.
“Outameni was the victim of too much politics,” Smith told The Sunday Gleaner. “The greater picture that should have been looked at is the fact that this was yet another worthwhile attraction, not just for tourists but for locals as well.”
He continued, “It should not have been allowed to die. A way should have been found to make it a meaningful presence in the tourism sector.”
But with the infrastructure fallen into such disrepair, and the once meticulously maintained landscape now a tangle of weeds and shrubs, one wonders what might have been and what will become of the Outameni Experience.