Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Mark Ricketts | A vision for downtown Kingston

Published:Sunday | September 4, 2016 | 9:00 AM

"Building a highway and opening up the Negril morass will make this area the future breadbasket of Jamaica."

- Norman Manley, 1959

I was a teenager when our Prime Minister Norman Manley decided to build what Jamaicans call a 'barber green' highway to Negril. The outrage on the part of some adults, both PNP and JLP, was something else. They argued that he had lost his marbles; he had gone bonkers. A case was even made that you mustn't be too bright in school because in old age, like Manley, you turn stupid.

How could Manley be spending good money to open some 'back of beyond place' that no Jamaican will ever go, and we need money for education and for attending to the urban blight fuelling increasing unrest?

Vision pays a high price for seeing what others can't see or do, but, the real price is, you had better be right. Thank heavens Manley was right about Negril, as he was with our National Stadium, where even there he got a lot of flak and verbal shellacking before construction.

Today, as a nation we are trying to pull out all the stops in order to move ahead but there are some headwinds and to deal with these, including crime, high levels of youth unemployment, lawlessness, irresponsibility and indiscipline, we need large amounts of investment capital.

Outside of finding oil, what is it that our country has to offer that can interest well-heeled investors to undertake mammoth investment, thus reducing our high urban unemployment and our large and burdensome shadow economy? We have a port city that is strategically located on a large, naturally beautiful harbour. But we need our capital city Kingston to be vibrant in order to bolster our position against a resuscitated Havana in the years ahead. Moreover, our city is deemed unsafe by many Jamaicans. That negative perception affects Jamaica's brand and, therefore, all of Jamaica.

The net effect is that we are getting fewer visitors, including those from the diaspora, than we could potentially be getting and we are losing phenomenal returns on retail sales expenditures.

Beyond its history, its geography, the view of the harbour, its balminess, downtown Kingston, if done right, will have a huge demand for its product offerings such as hotels, office space, shopping centres, high-end condominiums and apartments, a health tourism hospital, and cruise ships.

 

'Singapore of the West'

 

With the right vision, daring and aggressive marketing strategies, our port city can move towards becoming Singapore of the West. But major changes will have to be made in governance, education, and in crime reduction and lawlessness (subject areas I will begin to look at starting next week).

But looking at downtown as it is, which investor, local or foreign, would ever buy into it? It would take more than a leap of faith for any investor to contemplate large-scale investment on the waterfront, especially with our crime rate and downtown Kingston's shabby condition.

For large-scale development to take place that would require someone like Carl Fisher, whose dream in life was a desire to create destinations. In the 1920s, he saw beyond the unpopulated barrier reef, a little distance from Miami, and what he imagined was not the wasteland most investors assumed but fabulous hotels and waterfront dining where thousands of tourists would flock once his dream turned to reality. He devised every marketing gimmick known to mankind to make Miami Beach a success, and today the millions who flock there are testament to his vision; and for that the exclusive development, Fisher Island was named in his honour.

As it was with Miami Beach, the same for Toronto in the 1970s. I watched developers like the Reichman Bros demonstrate daring and boldness in building extremely tall skyscrapers housing Canada's premier banks in the heart of the downtown area. There was Eve Diamond of Cadillac Fairview who developed the prized Eaton Mall, which was a game-changer for downtown Toronto.

Many Torontonians were sceptical of these developments as they couldn't see where demand for very pricey, new, office and retail space was going to come from. But, as I said in last week's column, "Talent hits a target no one else can hit, genius hits a target no one else can see".

An interesting, dogged and persistent visionary was Canadian Bruce McLaughin who was convinced that a basically barren, underdeveloped area called Mississauga, west of Toronto, was ready for major development.

We spoke on many property forums in the '70s, along with Canada's Urban Affairs Minister the Hon Barney Danson, and McLaughin kept lobbying municipalities and all relevant government bodies for land use and zoning changes and kept imploring anyone who would listen to him to believe, as well as invest. Some did.

Mississauga now is Canada's sixth-largest city, and many property development companies, individuals and families rue the day that they did not believe and invest.

Downtown Kingston offers similar possibilities but it is awfully hard to see them. That is why we need, immediately, artist drawings and architectural renderings to capture a vision of what is possible. And here we could get seconded to us an internationally respected urban planner, architect and artist, ideally from Toronto, Vancouver, Seattle, Singapore, with downtown waterfront experience and bold and imposing imaginings. Then we would have a better chance to convey what is possible.

 

Deputy PMs needed

 

We also need for Prime Minister Holness to appoint three deputy prime ministers - Ed Bartlett, Mike Henry and Audley Shaw. The logic here is that along with their substantive duties as ministers they would undertake a proactive role in positioning downtown Kingston in the marketplace.

When President Obama called Bill Gates and asked him for substantial funding for his climate change initiatives, or when he visited the Far East and worked with his ambassadors and trade attachÈs to lobby businessmen and governments to give support and approve the TPP, he had the prestige of being president of the most powerful country in the world.

In a similar vein our government ministers use our diplomatic channels in their attempt to liaise with other government officials and top business leaders in major companies but they do not necessarily have excessive clout and assured access being 'just another minister of government' from yet another country.

However, as deputy prime ministers, the field narrows considerably, giving them a greater opportunity to get to the real decision makers, including government leaders and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Jamaica is centre stage at the moment and we should capitalise on our fortunes. We need to give hope to a people whose income has been suppressed for decades and whose unemployment and underemployment numbers are high.

Each deputy prime minister has to pull together a team and start lobbying for cruise ships, ferries, hotels, offices, condominiums, high-end apartments, an international mall, and a health tourism hospital. This will make what is feasible a reality.

Downtown Kingston must happen if we are to justify our investment in the state-of-the-art toll roads criss-crossing the country; if we are to offset our depressing urban blight; if we are to create massive employment; and if we are to rebrand Jamaica and make a bold statement that, like the very tiny island of Singapore, we are ready to be first-world.

• Mark Ricketts, economist, author and lecturer living in California. He was chief economist of the Vancouver Board of Trade in Canada; deputy chairman of the Jamaica Stock Exchange; assistant editor of the Financial Post, Canada's largest financial weekly newspaper; and publisher of Money Index, a weekly business magazine. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rckttsmrk@yahoo.com