Market fires mystery

INVESTIGATORS have determined that the majority of fires at Jamaica’s public markets in the past five years were deliberately set, but they are struggling to determine why.

“The only possible motive would be that somebody would feel that if fire is set to the market and it’s burnt down then it would be a source of getting employment. I can only look at that,” Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Desmond McKenzie told the weekly post-Cabinet media briefing at Jamaica House on Wednesday.

“It is difficult to assess it, but in one case I know it is alleged that dominance of control [was] why one of the markets in St Catherine was set on fire. But there could be no motive that one could justify in setting fire to a public market,” added McKenzie.

He told the media briefing that initial investigations have revealed that the May 28 fire at the historic Musgrave Market in Portland was not a case of arson, but more recent fires at the Linstead and Spanish Town markets were caused by arsonists.

According to McKenzie, in the case of the June 1 fire, which destroyed at least 20 stalls at the Linstead Market, three men were seen running from the scene after starting the blaze.

“Since the beginning of last year to today, we have had some 18 fires at various markets across the country and the cost to the local authorities has been enormous. Well in excess of $150-million worth of damage has been incurred because of these deliberate acts of arson,” said McKenzie as he urged the perpetrators to desist from destroying the markets, the majority of which are more than 100 years old.

“I want to condemn those persons who believe [in] this is new form of vulgarity that is being unleashed on the country,” said McKenzie.

“The Government will not be held as hostage by any sector of the society who feels that in setting fire to these vital institutions in the country [they will get a response],” declared McKenzie.

He said his ministry is looking at ways to further protect the markets from fires with the Highgate Market in St Mary set to be the model facility.

The Highgate Market was destroyed by fire on July 16, 2022 and McKenzie said the design now being considered will have built in fire safety features.

“Discussions have commenced with Jamaica Fire Brigade on how we can incorporate into the new design of the Highgate Market, a system that will be able to respond to a fire,” said McKenzie as he noted that based on the items sold or stored in a market, it doesn’t have to be a deliberate act to start a fire in them.

The local government minister noted that the 37 markets across Jamaica provide not just a service to members of the public but they are a source of livelihood for hundreds of Jamaicans.

He argued that many of the island’s markets have been neglected over the years but this is being addressed under the Andrew Holness Administration.

“Since we came into office in 2016 we have done a substantial amount of work, not just upgrading but building new markets across the country and we will continue to so,” declared McKenzie.

In his contribution to the 2023/24 Sectoral Debate on May 30, McKenzie announced that the Government will continue its market rehabilitation programme which he launched two years ago.

He told the House that during the last financial year, the Stony Hill Market in St Andrew was completed at a cost of $7 million, while the Clarks Town Market in Trelawny was finally completed and work at the Hopewell Market in Hanover was done at a cost of $24 million.

According to McKenzie, during this financial year the Savanna-la-Mar Market phase one, which will cost $20 million, would be done.

He said this was part of a $70-million project at the Westmoreland-based market which is to be built out over two years.

In addition, McKenzie said phase one of the Charles Gordon Market in St James, slated to cost $8 million, would be completed while attention will also be paid to the Alexandria Market in St Ann, and the Buff Bay Market in Portland.

“I want to state very clearly, that when these facilities are completed, I expect that our vendors will operate inside them. I appeal to them to come in off the streets when these markets are transformed and earn their livelihoods while making their contribution to public order,” said McKenzie.