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Lee-Chin ditches mega farm plan for housing boom

Thousands more acres of arable land are set to make way for the continuing building boom, as lands in Innswood Village in St Catherine which were originally acquired for a major agricultural development by a group of investors headed by business mogul Michael Lee-Chin, are being repurposed for a housing development, the Financial Gleaner understands.

The property of about 3,000 acres, formerly part of Innswood Sugar Estates, was slated for the growing of cash crops, including tomatoes, onions, watermelons and carrots, alongside mango and soursop orchards. Over two years ago, the plan, which was premised on the use of advanced Israeli technology, was hailed by then Agriculture Minister Audley Shaw as a model of agricultural entrepreneurship.

That plan now appears to have been bumped off the table and replaced by a residential housing project, credible sources close to the matter say.

“What I understand is that the property is listed for agriculture, but they wanted the use of the land to be changed to housing, and I believe they are very close to getting that done. Housing is more profitable, and so that may have been the reason,” the source, who did not want to be named, told the Financial Gleaner.

Despite rising interest rates as an inflation-fighting tool of central banks, sending mortgages higher, the Jamaican housing sector has not yet seen any dampening of demand with home prices and values continuing to soar.

Portland Holdings Inc, the investment company through which Lee-Chin owns a formidable and diversified collection of businesses, is said to already have in place a strategic partnership with a major Caribbean-based housing developer to move the project forward. Efforts to get a comment on the plans for the residential development from Portland Holdings were unsuccessful.

However, last year, Agha Raza, director of international business development at Portland Holdings, detailed the privately held investment company’s interest in middle-income housing projects.

At the time, he said the company had been studying the demand-and-supply gap that existed within that housing segment and had been mulling the call by Prime Minister Andrew Holness for private developers to step up and provide solutions for the low-income housing market.

“We want to play our part in addressing this challenge,” Raza said at the time.

Raza said Portland Holdings has identified that there is significant unmet market need for housing units under $15 million, but that to meet that demand and maintain profitability, any housing project would need to be a large-scale development. He added that any residential project undertaken by Portland Holdings would provide complete access to utilities and amenities, as well as infrastructure and transport, to allow homeowners convenient mobility to work, and access to education and healthcare.

Portland Holdings lists its holdings as including NCB Financial Group, National Commercial Bank Limited, Guardian Holdings and the various companies within the Guardian Group, Portland Private Equity and Mavis Bank Coffee Factory.

The Portland Holdings portfolio also includes private equity and funds investment firm Portland JSX, which has a range of investments in telecoms, energy, technology, hospitality, logistics and outsourcing businesses. Its hospitality investments include growing conglomerate Chukka, whose portfolio companies include Chukka Caribbean Adventure, energy storage distributor Tropical Battery, and real estate development and management company Diverze Assets.

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