Business

Business districts toppled by crime

Wednesday, February 23, 2011    

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THE burdensome expense of crime is evident by the crippled business centres across the Kingston metropolitan region and the threat it now poses to commercial districts islandwide.

This is against the background of a new Private Sector Orgnisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) study which reveals that small businesses -- the backbone of economies across the globe -- are paying out close to an onerous fifth of revenues to protect themselves against crime in Jamaica.

The PSOJ in its study said that the "proliferation of garrison communities, which have become breeding grounds for crime and safe havens for criminals" is one of the main causes of organised crime, which has toppled several business districts and is plaguing others.

The tribulation of downtown Kingston is well documented. Torn by organised crime since the late 1970's, the once premier local business district is now largely a picture of derelict former commercial buildings. The crime in the area has greatly subsided (major crimes were down 47 per cent in downtown for 2010 compared to 2009) but the downtown economy is still grappling for recovery.

It's hard to believe that Red Hills Road in St Andrew was once the 'hip strip' of the city with flourishing entertainment spots and thriving small businesses. The district has been robbed of its vibrancy by extortionists and feuding politically-aligned gangs. The upshot being that Red Hills Road is split in two sections: the upper stretch that intersects with Eastwood Park Road, where several businesses continue to thrive; and the other end where Whitehall Avenue, 100 Lane, Park Lane, and such communities have become synonymous with trouble and flare-ups of violence.

Spanish Town, the old Jamaica capital, is today one of the most dangerous places in the country, notorious for gang-related violence and extortion. St Catherine Chamber of Commerce president Dennis Robotham, while pointing to its poor infrastructure, has said in the past that the economy of Spanish Town is in serious trouble as there are few jobs being created and slow economic movement.

"Spanish Town is an area that has garrisons which need to be dismantled and people doing business there are faced with some very serious problems by the criminal activity and organised crime in that belt," said Lt Commander George Overton, chairman of the PSOJ Standing Committee on National Security, at the recent Monday Exchange meeting of Observer reporters and editors.

What's worse is the spread of organised crime to rural areas, once thought to be relative safe-havens.

The prime commercial area of Montego Bay, St James, for instance, has been affected by an upsurge in violence in recent years, linked to a multi-million-dollar international sweepstakes and lottery scam that has been blamed for a significant number of murders committed in the parish.

"It is not centred on Jamaicans, it is overseas and that's the biggest problem," said Patrick Casserly, president of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Casserly, however, has renewed hope for the district with major crimes falling "dramatically", he said

"To be frank, it is 'disorganised crime' — they have a number of organisatons but it is disorganised and, frankly, crime is falling in Montego Bay because the scammers are falling apart," said Casserly.

May Pen, Clarendon is another area which has been scourged by organised crime in recent years, with more than 20 gangs believed to be operating in and around the parish. Clarendon Chamber of Commerce president Aldo Brown acknowledged that crime is a big problem in the district but cautioned that it is sometimes exaggerated.

"It is bad, it is too bad but it's not as bad as it appears to be," said Brown, stating that his chamber is embarking on a mission to promote the parish in a more positive light.

However, all agree that crime is a major problem in Jamaica that needs to be seriously addressed if Jamaica is to achieve the economic growth which it desperately needs.

"The crime problem is solvable but we have to be driven; go and pick up the guys, we know who they are," said Casserly.

A 2007 World Bank study estimated that if Jamaica could reduce its murder rate from the current 60/100,000 to 8/100,000 as in Costa Rica, the country could gain 5.8 per cent in annual GDP growth.

At that rate, the PSOJ said in its latest report, the island's per capita income would double in 12 years.

"The worst effect of crime is certainly the loss of lives, but crime is also costing the country investment, jobs, economic growth and a better quality of life for all," the report said, noting that "On average it is costing Jamaica's businesses two per cent of revenues to protect themselves against crime, but for medium-sized business that cost is 7.6 per cent and for small business it is a huge 17.8 per cent of revenues."

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