Friday, April 28, 2017

Invest in the infrastructure to drive growth



Last Easter Sunday seven of us decided that we would do the 111-mile cycle ride to Montego Bay.Of course I had to eat at Peppa's as soon as I got there, which I think is one of the best kept secrets in Montego Bay, and then stayed at my friend, Terrence Jarret's Altamont West, located right on the Hip Strip, which I haven't visited in a while.

After showering and resting for a while, I ventured out to meet a friend of mine who was visiting from overseas, to have a quick chat and then head back to the room for a good sleep.

I deliberately stayed on the Hip Strip because I could just walk from the hotel to meet up with my friend. Everything had gone well so far: We had a great ride to MoBay, ate good food, the room was good, and after the meeting I thought I'd just walk back to my hotel.

Everything was good until I started walking along the Hip Strip. This immediately struck me as urban decay in action.

The pan chicken and other vendors had all taken up residence along the side of the street and even under the bus stops, allowing little room for any pedestrian traffic.

The sidewalks had obviously not been repaired in many years, and one could see the concrete breaking up. The roads had been cleaned but were badly stained from the vending activities that take place there night after night. And the traffic was horrendous, with taxis stopping wherever they pleased.

I thought to myself: “This is a prime example of why we find it so difficult to develop the country.” Tourism, as we know, is the number one foreign exchange earner (apart from remittances which are not based on productive activity, and Trump may soon reverse that).

Additionally, Montego Bay is the tourist capital of Jamaica, and the main area of attraction has always been touted as the Hip Strip. So in effect this strip could be referred to as the proverbial “goose that lays the golden egg”. But it seems as if we are trying to strangle that goose.

I cannot understand why we do not have a grand vision for the Hip Strip. If we do, why has it not been implemented? I can picture the Hip Strip as a well-kept road, where only pedestrian traffic is allowed, or specially designated shuttles, operated by the Tourist Board, paid for by advertisements displayed by tourism interests. The sidewalks and streets are well maintained.
No vending is allowed, and the type of business activity is well regulated. Against this backdrop thousands of tourists are traversing the Hip Strip 24 hours a day, and because of this experience the cost of a room is double what it is now, which means soaring real estate values.

In essence, the Hip Strip would become a global tourist attraction. However, once I wake up from that dream I come to the realisation that the Hip Strip is being allowed to go the route of downtown Montego Bay, which is dirty and absolutely chaotic.

Urban decay has been allowed to creep into residential communities because zoning laws have not been implemented; inadequate planning and the support of the “disturb my neighbour mentality” prevail as loud music is the norm across the country, with no regard for the citizens who want to enjoy the peace and quiet of their homes.
This is another assault on the market value of real estate across the country, as if we are not satisfied with the decay we have brought to the garrison communities in defiance of the euphoria and vision that Jamaicans had in 1962.

But let's not stop there, because we have allowed this same type of decay to beset downtown Kingston, which we are now trying to redevelop, while at the same time allowing the decay and indiscipline to creep into New Kingston.

New Kingston is now a place where many people say they dread going to because the sidewalk infrastructure is decaying; homeless people loiter on the streets all day - some establishing car wash businesses on the streets, in addition to the begging; the parking restrictions are ignored and whenever you go there, a line of illegally parked vehicles can be seen (even though there is a police post); and then there is the traffic which is blended in with the reckless driving.

For too long (for fiscal and other reasons) we have ignored the infrastructure and have been underspending, and it is important to reverse that trend. Think of it like a balloon.
A balloon can hold a certain amount of air in it, depending on the size. If you put more air than it can hold, then it will burst, and this is an undesirable outcome as you will lose both the air and the balloon. Similarly, economic growth is like the air in the balloon, and the capital infrastructure is the balloon.

In order to expand your economic and social development, infrastructure is important. So if we think about the tourism product, it is not going to be possible to increase the tourism value added if we do not improve the tourism product. And the tourism product cannot be improved unless we put the necessary infrastructure in place to support the improvement.

So the all-inclusives, such as Sandals, and similar hotels which have done a fantastic job with a fragile environment, cannot grow geometrically if we do not provide the environmental infrastructure to grow. Even on a micro level, can you imagine the growth in tourism we would see if we could improve the infrastructure and environment around the Hip Strip - even without developing beyond that, though that too is necessary.

Or can you imagine the growth in business and real estate values if we were to halt the decay in New Kingston and solve the traffic problems?

As far as I am concerned, this is a sound argument for the use of funds like the TEF and NHT. We shouldn't only be talking about using these funds for fiscal support.

We must think outside the box and start envisioning what is possible if we properly utilise these funds to provide this environmental support, and find the will to instill the discipline and order that we need.

What I am certain of is that investing in our infrastructure will increase our capacity for growth, and allow us to see the geometric expansion we need, rather than the incremental growth we have become accustomed to.

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