New Falmouth cruise ship pier not ready

Agencies scramble to meet January deadline Janice Budd reports for Jamaica’s Observer.

IT’S a grey, blustery day in the rural seaside town of Falmouth, Trelawny. The sea is choppy and impatiently slams against the brand new concrete and steel pier at the Old Hampden Wharf, where this Friday, the first cruise ship visitor in the town’s more than 200-year history is scheduled to disembark.

That tourist will be among an anticipated 4,000 scheduled to arrive on the world’s largest cruise liner, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line’s (RCCL’s) Oasis of the Seas — a 15-storey behemoth with a new design which requires special infrastructure in transit ports. But looking at the 95,000 square metre property, which was painstakingly reclaimed from the sea over the last two years, some persons might be hard-pressed to see rich European tourists deigning to set one Prada-clad foot on the rubble-strewn premises the Sunday Observer saw on Tuesday.

Looking more like a bomb went off on the site than a high-class tourist trap when the Sunday Observer visited, the new Falmouth mega-liner cruise terminal was obviously far from complete.

Massive cranes were still dumping debris scraped from the sea-bottom along the shoreline at the foot of the giant double pier. Heavy earth-movers slipped deftly between scurrying hard-hatted workers, some drilling, some tamping down earth, some disappearing into the catacombs of maintenance access points beneath the earth, like hundreds of worker ants.

Up on scaffolding, more workers attached wooden planks, brick or limestone facades to concrete slab buildings, a design intended to mimic the 18th-century Georgian architecture prominent throughout the town of Falmouth.

The bricks, limestone, and even the white mortar are imported; the concrete walls are pre-fabricated by a local company specifically for this project. Also imported are the brick pavers, stacked in neat piles the height of a man and specially crafted in Europe to look like they weathered hundreds of years exposed to the briney Caribbean Sea. At some point in the next 10 days (from our visit), each paver is to be individually tapped into place to form meandering walkways through this brand new ‘town’.

It is being built by RCCL in collaboration with the Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ). The plan was to construct an all-inclusive resort town on the pier featuring contemporary shops, parks and landscaping, restaurants and bars, even a helipad, linked to the original town by tram-car and all built to match the colonial aesthetic of times past.

The pier is ready; the quaint colonial town replica is not. It is something that Jes Olsen, project director with Pihl — the Dutch construction firm building the pier — admits.

The guest experience will not be what was planned, he explained, but that won’t stop the first ship from arriving on the scheduled January 7 date.

“The port facilities, especially the shops, are not ready. I would say the earliest they would be ready is about mid-March, and fully operational around late April, and the terminal building, a hundred per cent open at the end of June (2011),” he said.

He explained the delay:

“It is a very huge project. It’s a ‘design/build’ project, where the developer has certain things in mind and he can change his mind along the way. Also the unknown factors, we had a lot of coral to move which delayed the start-up of the project. We moved about 140,000 live corals.”

He explained that Pihl had to hire over 100 divers to painstakingly relocate each live coral, as per environmentalists’ demands, before dredging and dumping up the waterfront to create land to build the quay.

RCCL, according to project documents presented in May 2010 by the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) to Falmouth residents, has been given long-term preferential berthing rights.

The cruise shipping firm is also guaranteeing $8 million in annual fees to the PAJ, based on a formula of bringing a minimum of 667,000 passengers annually or paying the shortfall, for the 10 years.

The PAJ, which owns the land on which the pier is built, will collect annual ground rent from RCCL of approximately $3 million, including a percentage of all gross revenues from the Landside commercial project.

RCCL is also expected to develop and manage approximately 300,000 square feet of shoreside buildings in three phases.

The official opening is likely to be mid-March, the Dutch construction official told the Sunday Observer last week. In the meantime, while construction continues, Olsen suggested that guests may have to be bussed to Montego Bay or maybe Ocho Rios. Still, he is not panicking and feels the authorities have nothing to worry about.

“Of course they would have preferred everything was ready, but since they (will) receive the guests I don’t see they have any big issue,” he said. “I think the concern would be that if you get a negative response, future guests might not be interested in making that trip, but I don’t see that happening …I think we will be OK.”

His confidence was in spite of the fact that Pihl installing the ‘plumbing’, in the form of a huge new water, electricity and sewage system for the pier, when the Sunday Observer visited. The customs house was a mere roofless skeleton, few buildings had windows and roofs installed, and there was zero landscaping. In fact, the contractors were busy trying to source tons of topsoil to put in the palms and greenery travellers associate with a seaport town. All of these things, our local guides insisted, could still be completed ahead of the deadline.

But the optimism of the contractors was not mirrored across the main road at the town centre.

Water Square was its usual hub of commercial activity, marked by robot taxis zipping in and out of defined parking spaces encircling the neat, garbage-free roundabout. A tiny fountain spurted water into the air and a traditional Christmas tree stood firm against a stiff sea breeze in the little circle of land at the centre.

The stark contrast between the ancient cut-stone courthouse, the old wooden and concrete buildings housing neat country shops, and the huge pier development rising from the coastline, could not be missed.

Three years ago, Jamaica leaped at the chance to boost cruise ship earnings by embarking on the project to build the new port of call in Falmouth. However, the heady buzz of anticipation that followed the initial project launch has dampened to a dull throb as Falmouth natives grow jaded over promises not yet kept.

“We are still on a wait-and-see,” said Yvonne James, who works in a shop inside the tiny Albert George Shopping Centre on one side of Water Square. “Because from what I heard, over there is sort of exclusive and everything will be there, so if everything is all-inclusive in there, then probably we will be excluded. I don’t know how much the citizens of Falmouth are going to benefit, apart from the few that might get some kind of employment. Time will tell.”

For Ansel Rodney, the proprietor of A and D Video Accessories and Small Appliances, “The town is not ready.”

“The ships will come, but there is not enough provision made for the occupants of the ship. What is going to happen is they are going to go out of Falmouth, because you know tourists need excitement and activities,” he said.

Rodney pointed to the interactive Jamaican cultural journey that is Outameni, the rafters village on the Martha Brae river and the J Charles Swaby Crocodile Swamp Safari Eco Tour, all on the outskirts of the town, noting that aside from these attractions, there was nothing in the heart of Falmouth to entice any visitor.

He complained that with just two weeks to go, plans for the setting up of a craft market are yet to materialise. He said the UDC office, which was set up earlier this year to help ease the rural town into the world of resort towns via a public education campaign, has not lived up to its promise, as many residents including himself were still in the dark about what is to happen.

Approximately 70 per cent or approximately 4,000 passengers per ship are expected to disembark when each ship docks at Falmouth for excursions. Four thousand passengers equates to eighty-eight 50-seater buses moving tourists to destinations inside and outside of the town with immediate impact on Falmouth.

However, the authorities have complained that very few Falmouth natives have jumped on the bandwagon.

Dwight Seiveright, president of the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce, was champing at the bit when the Sunday Observer spoke to him. He said the Falmouth townspeople are still hurting from the Cricket World Cup 2007 ‘greenfield’ failure, when local investors went belly up because the promised influx of visitors did not materialise.

“It is a double task to get people up and running again. People say to me, you have told us this before. So we have to see it first. So among the populace there is a wait-and-see,” he complained.

“What is happening, to my dismay, is that outsiders are coming in droves trying to find out how they can capitalise on the situation, realising the homesters are still traumatised after 2007 World Cup,” he explained.

He declared frankly that Falmouth residents have very little to do with the commercial set-up inside the pier facilities, where shops have to be bought, not leased.

“Falmouthians and maybe most Jamaicans cannot afford the shops in the pier, it’s above our head,” said Seiveright. “I hear that there is concession to craft vendors, which is a very critical part of the industry. I hear that this is controlled by the parish council, but otherwise you have to have a very deep pocket.”

But this, he argued, should not stop the small man.

“Your little lean-to house, straighten it and put little paint on it or convert it to a coffee shop, or a little gift stall and don’t depend on Government for that,” Seiveright said. “When they (the tourists) come now, you say here is something Jamaican, mek dem taste the bammy, the ackee and the saltfish, the rundown, the curry goat, the jerk pork, the jerk chicken… that is what we are left to do.”

He believes fears about the tourists bypassing Falmouth will only be realised if the townspeople don’t figure out how to entertain them or if they harass them.

He was inflamed, however, by the slow pace of the parish council and other public sector partners in getting the town ready to shine.

“The authorities should have by now cleaned the main drains so that the streets are impeccable,” Seiveright said.

He lamented that the promised signage had not been erected and the facades of the old buildings encircling the square remained unpainted. The Old Courthouse, which also houses the parish council, and is expected to receive tours, remained covered with scaffolding, planned repairs incomplete.

There has always been a traffic flow problem in Falmouth with its old narrow streets. The UDC’s Traffic Management Plan was designed so the town only allows pedestrians to use these streets on cruise days. But the planned trial runs to work out the kinks in this pedestrianisation of the town were also a disappointment.

“That is another disgust and I am very upset, because pedestrianisation should have been experimented eight weeks ago,” Seiveright fumed.

“What I think we need right now is for the ‘big man’ to get involved,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Bruce Golding.

“The prime minister himself (needs) to say, ‘This is it, I want it to happen now!’, and make it happen now. Stop the paper-pushing and hiding behind others. We want someone who is not afraid to take the necessary decisions. It’s action time!” Seiveright declared emphatically.

According to the redevelopment plan, the list of physical works that should have been completed by November 2010, include:

* Pedestrianisation of Water Square (creation of alternate parking);

* Landscaping and Beautification;

* Squatter Relocation;

* Sidewalk Improvement;

* Road Paving;

* Erection of Street Signage;

* Solid Waste Management;

* Zinc Fence Replacement;

* Installation of Garbage Receptacles and Bins; and

* Erection of Storyboards.

When the Sunday Observer tracked down the mayor of Falmouth, Colin Gager, last Tuesday afternoon, he had just left a meeting with the UDC and the other public and private sector partners involved in Falmouth’s redevelopment.

It was a beaming mayor who declared that the team was committed to working night and day to ensure the required improvements were made. The promised painting of the building facades in the square, he said, would happen this week.

“In the next few days you will see a lot of activities going on. Those that are out of the scope of work of the town, the parish council will be doing that,” he said.

“We are procuring some weed-wackers, we are procuring some paint and the picket fencing. So everything will be working fast, fast, fast,” he insisted.

He was also confident that his fellow parishioners’ entrepreneurial spirit will be sparked once they see the tourists coming, and dismissed claims of lack of involvement or information. He listed meetings, consultations and training sessions which had been conducted by the UDC and other agencies since the start of the project.

He is not worried that the cruise ship visitors will see an unfinished pier and an ordinary rural town and head straight for Montego Bay with its in-bond, luxury shopping experience.

When asked if it could all be done by January 7, Gager said, “It will have to be.”

Falmouth was chosen by the Port Authority of Jamaica as an alternative to Ocho Rios or Montego Bay with the expectation of increasing Jamaica’s cruise ship capacity from four big ships per week to six, including two in Ocho Rios, two in MoBay, and two in Falmouth.

Over the next four or five years, RCCL and its Jamaican partners will embark on other plans of developing 125,000 sq ft of leasable building space, including ground floor retail restaurant-service space. This is budgeted to cost $45 million.

Phase II, set to begin in 2013, is supposed to include a boutique hotel, additional retail/restaurants and residential units; an estimated $40-million investment.

Phase III, which is slated to start in 2014, is to include a shopping centre for the local community and additional residences, to the tune of $30 million.

In May 2010, the UDC said it was hoping to generate over 300 new positions for persons who would be directly employed in the 2011 project. This included construction workers, drivers, shop workers, sales clerks, cooks, bartenders and wait staff, security guards, maintenance staff, information and walking tour guides, entertainers, artisans and taxi drivers.

In May last year, the UDC’s preliminary budget estimate for works over the initial phase up to December 2010, stood at $267.4 million. Despite several attempts to speak with the UDC’s Falmouth representative, we were unable to get a comment up to press time.

According to the agency’s plan presented to Falmouth residents at that time, the project was to have cost, up to June 2011, an estimated $341 million.

Royal Caribbean was committed to spending an estimated $4.05 billion up to 2011. The various other agencies such as the Tourism Product Development Company and the Social Development Commission were together expected to fork out $27 billion.

The Ports Authority was committed to spending $10.98 billion
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