On June 2 I turned 51. Being that it was my birthday I left out a bit later than usual as I was not going directly into my Kingston office, but was instead heading to a meeting with a Government consultant who is working on the development of a new engineering workflow for a new government statutory body.
As I made my way to my morning meeting I detoured through Grant’s Pen, an inner city neighbourhood of Kingston, because of heavier than normal traffic on my intended route. The Grant’s Pen neighbourhood, despite social intervention efforts by the Government over the years, remain blighted with little or no economic activities. A few metres from the intersection of Grant’s Pen and Shortwood Roads stands one of the most modern police stations in Jamaica. This station formed an integral part of the Government’s social intervention programme. While sitting in my car with my windows fully wound up waiting on the stoplight to turn green; my mind wondered back to Sistrunk Street in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, an area similar to Grant’s Pen Road in terms of economic blight. The two areas are characterised by, high unemployment, drugs, and a crime problem that creates an unsafe perception.
The City of Fort Lauderdale in a bid to reverse the downward economic trend has evidently made social and economic investments in this neighbourhood by redesigning the streetscape, creating new green areas, constructing a new police post and new housing. Businesses have started to return to this once thriving African-American neighbourhood. Sistrunk Street while on its way back from the abyss is still not totally revived with robust economic activities, but it is on the road to recovery. Meanwhile the Grant’s Pen neighbourhood, with its modern police station, health centre, hardcourt, and the trade training centre shows very little signs of economic activity.
As my eyes wondered searching for any sustainable signs of economic activity I could not help but notice the lady slouched on a chair outside an empty bar, with her head back and eyes looking upward as she sent the young man beside her on an errand. My eyes followed the young man, perhaps in his early thirties, as he crossed the street, cladded in short pants with a white undershirt-clearly not dressed for work. I thought how can this trend be reversed, where people not just in Grant’s Pen, but in similar areas, be lifted out of poverty by engaging in sustainable economic activities. As a practising engineer my main task is to find solutions. So, I asked myself how can this be done in a sustainable and environmentally safe manner?
The Government just announced another JAD$963M (USD$8.3) expenditure on the Jamaica Emergency Employment Project (JEEP), with each member of Parliament being allocated JAD$10M (USD$86,207) to spend on projects in his or her constituency. While this is commendable, could we not have found a better way to invest this money that would have enable the lady slouching on the chair in the middle of sidewalk, in front of the bar at 8:45 am in the morning be gainfully employed?
While I firmly understand the rationale for the announced JEEP expenditure, it is my fervent belief that we need to move away from this old model of having our legislators operating like glorified employment agencies but allocate the money to the local government authorities. By enabling the local authorities, the creation of economic activity zones that can engender long term economic activities would be a reality. The economic activity zones would be driven by local needs as the local authorities led by the councillors would be the drivers. Streetscape improvement, creation of safe green areas, and well lit roadways can be used to entice businesses back to these communities.
The second suggestion is to utilise the resources of local savings held by statutory bodies such as the National Housing Trust and the National Investment Fund. On my way back from the meeting I drove through Eastwood Park Gardens, once a solid middle class community now overrun by small to medium size businesses. What if the lots these businesses currently owned/occupied are purchased outright by the National Housing Trust and the area reconverted to being a residential community, while at the same time the National Investment Fund through the Factories Corporation finance and construct replacement industrial parks where these businesses can be relocated?
I know the economic analysis would have to take place before my ideas can even be considered, but as an engineer sometimes in trying to find the solution, one must THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX.