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EDITORIAL - Getting serious about downtown

Published:Sunday | February 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

AS PRIME Minister Golding conceded last year, the estimated $1.2 billion the Government spends on rent annually is an awful lot of money, that, from an economic or social policy standpoint, is not being efficiently utilised.

The bulk of this expenditure, which we do not believe was fully captured in the PM's calculation, is for offices in New Kingston, the uptown, business-district area of the capital, which, of itself is not a bad thing. Except for two reasons:

While the Government pays private property owners top dollar for the use of their real estate, it owns tens of thousands of square feet of empty, unused or underused buildings that could, with relative ease, be converted to accommodate some of its ministries and agencies.

Second, much of that free space is in downtown Kingston, the old section of the city that has grown hard, gritty and crime-infested, and from which some agencies of the Government continue to flee, despite the policy commitment to its redevelopment and the prime minister's directive to departments to stay put, which he is having grave difficulty enforcing. Just last week, for instance, it was reconfirmed that the Factories Corporation of Jamaica (FCJ), an agency that is part of the investment and commerce ministry, is heading uptown.

It is against the backdrop of these conflicting economic and policy signals that we note with interest, and approval, that Government's spending on rent is within the remit of the Public Sector Transformation Unit (PSTU), established by Mr Golding to propose ways to restructure for efficiency and to reduce waste.

"It's a phenomenal amount of money spent on rent," the PSTU's chief executive, Pat Sinclair McCalla, noted last week. It is a matter, she said, that had to be addressed.

Use the facilities

We, however, would suggest to Mrs Sinclair McCalla, that her unit's exercise must, in the circumstance, involve more than determining what agency owns which buildings and trying to encourage them to use these facilities rather than allow them to become derelict. Any programme on public-sector accommodation and rental must take into account the Government's policy for downtown and strategy for a major return of government departments and agencies to that section of the city, if, indeed, Mr Golding is serious about this.

If this were to happen, we do not expect that there would be sufficient space in government-owned buildings downtown to accommodate all the agencies, which is part of the argument offered by the investment minister, Karl Samuda, for calling the FCJ uptown. The private sector, which owns tens of thousands of empty real estate downtown, would be expected to be involved.

But tax incentives, which the Government plans to enhance for real-estate investment downtown, are not of themselves enough. People will not spend good money refurbishing real buildings in the absence of a market and in the face of conflicting policy signals. The administration must, therefore, establish a clear timetable for the return of ministries, departments and agencies to downtown and signal how many new offices would be required on an annual basis.

In other words, the Government can act as a catalyst for the revitalisation of downtown, but it has to demonstrate that it is serious about it.

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