Businesses bracing for fallout from south coast highway project

MANDEVILLE, Manchester — For decades, restaurants, roadside eateries, bars and vending spots in Clarendon and Manchester have been go-to places and rest stops for commuters travelling between Kingston, Mandeville and other points west along the south coast.

However, many commercial operators are now worried about a likely decline in business come October 2022 when the US$144-million May Pen to Williamsfield leg of Highway 2000 is completed.

The 26-kilometre highway will bypass thriving business locations between May Pen and Porus.

In the early years of this century, previous legs of the tolled highway through St Catherine and Clarendon had bypassed communities such as Old Harbour, also leading to business decline in those areas.

Uriah Fowles, a fruit vendor and bar operator at Berrydale in Clarendon, just east of Porus in Manchester, painted a gloomy picture of life ahead.

“About 30 years I have been here. Everything is going to be low because business a guh subside. Right now, the best thing is for them to make some place pon di highway fi put we, or we have to go back home and go try something else,” he told the Jamaica Observer recently.

“We glad for the highway…but the people dem weh round yah suh, a vending we live off a, so it a guh hurt we badly. All the little livelihood a guh get cut because, from politician come straight down, basically everybody stop here,” he said.

Fowles suggested that the current winding, narrow road linking Clarendon Park to Porus, which is to be bypassed by the latest leg of Highway 2000, will end up looking as neglected as the old Melrose Hill main road which links Williamsfield to Porus. That road, referred to by locals as Old Road, has seen little use since the Melrose Hill Bypass Road was built more than 30 years ago.

“Look pon the old Melrose Road. Everything round deh mash up; is a ghost town. Right now, grass a grow inna the road,” said Fowles.

Shelly McLean, a vendor at the Melrose Hill Yam Park for over 20 years, likened the destiny of that rest stop to Faith’s Pen in St Ann, also a virtual ghost town following the completion of the north-south leg (Edward Seaga Highway) a few years ago.

Yam vendors had moved to their current location on Melrose Hill from the ‘Old Road’ decades ago.

McLean said she sees no benefit from the planned construction of additional shop spaces on the opposite side of the road.

“We are going right down just like Faith’s Pen. I am planning to leave, because there is nothing going to happen on the road anymore. We are going to only get our sale from one side of the highway,” she added.

George Nicholson, acting managing director of National Road Operating & Constructing Company (NROCC), which is responsible for overseeing the design, construction and maintenance of Jamaica’s highways, said similar shop spaces will be built opposite the current Melrose Hill Yam Park.

“In order to ameliorate any sort of potential issues and to ensure the safety of the motorists — because, as we know, people would opt to stop on one side of the road and walk the four lanes and jump over the median — those are things we are trying to discourage so it only makes sense for us to build additional shops on the other side of the road,” said Nicholson.

Courtney Murray, proprietor of Murray’s Fish and Jerk Hut at Clarendon Park, a family business of over 20 years, is looking at the advantages and disadvantages of the highway.

“I am trying to see how impactful it is going to be. I am a positive person. The thing is that we will be impacted, but I think we will also benefit from it as well. We will lose some customers but at the same time I think we will gain some customers,” said Murray.

“We lose customers because people are not going to turn off the highway to come and dine or patronise Murray’s, but at the same time with the highway, it is going to take a shorter time to get to Murray’s,” he added.

Murray intends to promote the location as a destination and expand the business into other parishes.

“Instead of Murray’s being a stopover to pick up food, we now have to turn Murray’s into a destination where people actually make it a trip to come here to dine,” he said.

“We also plan to expand, to put in one or two more outlets to offset what we might lose at Clarendon Park. We are looking at Mandeville and Kingston, but nothing has been finalised yet,” he added.

Nicholson said Clarendon Park will be approximately 1.2 kilometres away from the toll plaza. He pointed out that the highway project will lessen traffic on the main road.

“Any sort of highway project that bypasses a developed area is going to draw some traffic away. We would have done some studies around the time the environmental impact assessment was done, but it is very difficult to quantify the number of people that will shift from one corridor to the other,” said Nicholson.

“The toll plaza for the highway which is in the vicinity of Toll Gate is midpoint between the start at May Pen and the end at the Williamsfield roundabout, so somebody coming from Kingston who would normally stop at Clarendon Park to get gas or [buy food], we believe that those locations will continue to attract traffic,” he added.

He said motorists will not see a difference in cost if they are coming from Kingston and heading to Mandeville and “if they come off the highway to go to Clarendon Park and turnback [to rejoin]”.

He explained that there will be a main toll plaza, while another tollbooth will be on the access road at Toll Gate in Clarendon.

“There’s going to be two tollbooths — one in the main line [similar] to when you go through Vineyards or May Pen, and there is a toll booth on the access road just as if you were going to Spanish Town,” he explained.

Nicholson says that Porus may not suffer as much as some are suggesting is likely to happen because he believes the town gets most of its sales from locals rather than people driving through.

“Additionally, when we get some migration of traffic out of the town of Porus onto the highway then certainly that opens up other things in Porus itself — less traffic and easier parking,” said Nicholson.

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