Mon | Aug 21, 2017

Glen Christian | Bold plans for downtown

Published:Sunday | September 18, 2016 | 9:00 AM

The following is an edited address by Glen Christian at The Gleaner's long-service and pensioners' award ceremony on September 13.

We must prepare ourselves to take advantage of investment opportunities. The tag line for Jamaica's Vision 2030 document is 'the place of choice to live, work and do business'. It sounds good, but with only 14 years to go, what is our strategy, and where is the urgency to realise this goal?

In April, Michael Lee-Chin, who heads the Economic Growth Council, raised some eyebrows with his promise of 'five in four - five per cent growth in four years'. The reality is, if we are serious about growth, these are the kinds of big, audacious goals that we will need to work towards. In fact, I think the 'five in four' is conservative, if we take ourselves seriously. We can't afford to sit back and wonder how Mr Lee-Chin is going to pull this off. All of us - Government, the private sector, ordinary citizens - need to buy into this goal and leverage our respective strengths.

The Government must roll out aggressive strategies to get more high-school graduates into tertiary education. It has to widen the tax net to create more equity and improve revenue collection. It needs to tackle corruption, and to reduce bureaucracy. At the most basic level, we need to make it easier to do business in Jamaica. I understand the need to guard against corruption, but the level of bureaucracy is extremely frustrating, especially as it relates to obtaining permits and licences. I am hopeful that the newly established Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation will facilitate better collaboration between the relevant regulatory agencies.

 

Game-changers - low-hanging fruits for growth

 

There has been a lot of discussion as to what should be done as a major economic game-changer for Jamaica. I believe that instead of waiting for the next big thing, we can start with some low-hanging fruit.

An area that I believe is ripe for development is downtown Kingston. There is so much potential in this city. Yet, for decades we have been treating it like a warehouse. We lock it down at night and reopen it in the mornings.

Millions of dollars change hands daily in the market district, yet, if you take a walk by Coronation Market, Princess Street, West Street, Barry Street, Beckford Street, you see vendors conducting business under the most inhuman conditions. Some 90 per cent of the vendors in Coronation Market just have a little piece of blue tarpaulin as shelter from the sun or rain. Yet, this market district is the driver of Jamaica's agricultural sector.

All of this commerce is happening in a haphazard way that is not benefiting the formal economy. People are working with no tenure of employment, and the Government is not collecting taxes.

We need to build a state-of-the-art market that can become the centrepiece for economic and social development for the inner city and downtown Kingston. I saw an example of this some years ago when my wife and I visited Johannesburg and were invited to Sunday market. That experience turned out to be one of my fondest memories of the place. In addition to the vendors selling agricultural produce and clothing, there were artists selling their paintings, there were florists, there was a food court. I stopped to listen to a jazz band and have a beer. It was just a perfect place to hang out on a Sunday morning. And I believe there is no reason why our downtown market district could not be revitalised to showcase our culture in the same way.

Kingston has the potential to be one of the most exciting cities in the world based on the international popularity of Jamaican culture. We should be a major port of call for cruise ships. We should have a thriving nightlife.

I chair a small private-sector group that has done significant work towards implementing a greenfield commercial centre in the Kingston market district, termed the Kingston Lifestyle Centre. This would comprise more than 200,000 square feet of building space which we are proposing to set up behind Coronation Market. We envisage a promenade extending along Darling and Pechon streets from the market to the Lifestyle Centre, continuing to the craft market.

The centre would house a mix of commercial and cultural facilities, including shops, an entertainment complex, and an amphitheatre. And it would not just cater to large entrepreneurs, but there would also be shops and booths for small business people. Our group is seeking to execute the plan through a public-private-sector partnership with key government agencies, including the Urban Development Commission (UDC), Kingston and St Andrew Corporation, Development Bank of Jamaica, National Water Commission, National Works Agency, and the Planning Institute of Jamaica.

The group will seek to negotiate a joint MOU with these agencies that clearly sets out a commercially viable project aimed at boosting output in 11 industry segments, as well as creating more than 5,000 new jobs when operational. This development shows the potential to increase GDP growth by up to one per cent annually.

Total investment is estimated at US$50 million and all Jamaicans will be given an opportunity to invest in the project through a listing of the development company on the Jamaica Stock Exchange.

The project was endorsed by Cabinet in January 2013 and, in addition to the agencies I have just mentioned, there are several other bodies whose collaboration would be required to efficiently implement the project.

 

Shovel-Ready Projects - From Thought To Action

 

For its part, the UDC also has a number of projects on the drawing board with good investment potential. What it lacks is the funds to get these projects off the ground. For example, the agency owns some prime real estate in the waterfront area, and currently has a design for an office complex and high-rise car park. The same team that is looking at the Lifestyle Centre is ready to partner with the Government by raising funds for this project through a bond issue.

However, this will only be successful if the Government is prepared to move some agencies and ministries back downtown and guarantee a certain level of tenancy. If this is given urgent attention, I can guarantee you that we could have this done in two years.

Of course, in all of these discussions, the elephant in the room is crime.

This is a reality that will have to be addressed through a combination of economic development, policing and social intervention. A mistake we have traditionally made has been to try to do development around the residents of the inner city without engaging them in any meaningful way.

For example, look at what happened with the waterfront development.

We made a major infrastructural investment with construction of the Conference Centre, Oceana Hotel, Oceana Apartments, and the Kingston Mall, yet all these initiatives didn't end up kick-starting the renewal of the city. Why? Because we didn't adopt a holistic approach. We fixed up the frontyard, but left the backyard in ruins and squalor.

We can commission agencies like the NHT to review living conditions in areas like Beeston Street, Charles Street, Spanish Town Road and to come up with plans for providing residents with more habitable dwellings.

When you improve a person's physical environment, you make them feel human and valued. Then you can begin to engage them as real partners in development.

The bottom line is, if Jamaica is going to realise Vision 2030, we have to stop complaining and get on with it. Conditions are never going to be perfect. So what are we waiting for? Others are coming from outside Jamaica and taking advantage of opportunities here. Almost 90 per cent of the businesses downtown are owned by non-nationals. International hotel brands are coming in and building massive hotels. Why aren't more Jamaicans making these investments?