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Translating athletic achievements to economic success

Don Wehby

Sunday, September 09, 2012    

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A lightly edited version of GraceKennedy Group CEO Don Wehby's address to the Rotary Club of Kingston on Thursday, September 6, 2012 at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel.

MY feet may seem to be firmly planted on the ground, but I am still so very excited about the performance of our Olympic team in London. The Games demonstrated the amazing talent of our athletes, as well as the beauty of a nation unified by the potent force of sport.

And the fact that it happened in our 50th year of Independence makes it even more special. I should also mention that this is a proud year for GraceKennedy, as we celebrate our 90th anniversary.

Social media is still abuzz about Jamaica's athletes, and at least one former international athlete is now suffering from being struck by the lightning Bolt, bitten by the Beast and attacked by the Weir-wolf.

We know that it's hard for some to understand such greatness. We'll just continue to feed our athletes yam, cassava and dumpling. I know it will come as no surprise to anyone here that GraceKennedy Ambassador Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce's success was due in large part to Grace Vienna Sausages!

Mrs Fraser-Pryce has been a wonderful ambassador for our campaign to get public support for the Jamaican team at the London Olympics.

GraceKennedy's support of our athletes is something I am particularly proud of in my 17-year career with the company. We are major sponsors of the Girls' and Boys' Athletics Championships, celebrated worldwide as the standard for such events.

We also sent our own Executive Chef Karl Thomas to prepare nutritious Jamaican favourites for our athletes in England. We would like to believe that our contribution assisted, even in a small way, to their tremendous performance.

Our athletes have given Jamaica a phenomenal boost internationally. Now how do we take this forward? Unfortunately, the success we just had in London doesn't wipe out the economic challenges we continue to face. While we are doing a fantastic job in terms of our sports and culture, our economic performance leaves much to be desired.

In a recent Gleaner article, veteran journalist Ian Boyne asked, 'If you had a choice between seeing Usain further dazzle the world at nine seconds flat and Jamaica growing by five per cent, which would you prefer?' I would want to say both.

And so the discussion today is, how can we translate that amazing feat into progress for the Jamaican economy? How do we use that achievemment to spur economic success? How can a country so culturally rich be so economically poor? What are we doing wrong, friends? And how can we correct it?

As the nation waits for an IMF agreement to be finalised, there are certain fundamental reforms which are needed, which will eventually lead to fiscal sustainability and debt reduction, as well as sustainable growth within our economy.

We need:

* A sound, predictable macro-economic policy framework;

* Disciplined and strong fiscal management of the economy;

* A tax system that is simple, yet competitive;

* A modernised labour market geared towards high levels of productivity;

* The elimination of bureaucracy so that it is easier to do business in Jamaica. Data from the 2012 Doing Business Report show that Jamaica's rating is not good;

* Effective measures to prevent corruption and fight crime; and

* Supportive infrastructure.

I would like to commend the Government on setting up the National Competitiveness Council. I believe this is a step in the right direction.

I have some thoughts on areas that could help us to benefit economically. First, I propose that we take more seriously and invest more in sports tourism. Many in the industry feel that this is the time to seize and leverage the potential benefits if we put the right investment in this area.

Sports tourists travel the world, motivated primarily by their love of sports. These people want to visit sports sites, attend events, watch sporting activities, and learn more about sports and sporting personalities.

We have a huge sporting facility sitting, underutilised, in Trelawny. Maybe we can convert it into a National Athletic Centre, where coaches can come and train with their athletes, particularly in the winter.

We need to create new industries as well. The only avenue to achieve this vision is to invest in some areas that will promote growth and make Jamaica a business-friendly environment.

I have been saying for a while that we need to position Jamaica as an International Financial Services Centre. One area in which we can do it is in sports. Jamaica has a highly marketable sports brand, particularly now after London 2012.

The proposal is that sports figures could come from all over the world to have their financial planning done in Jamaica. We have a strong regulatory framework, superior telecommunication infrastructure and a large cadre of professionals, among them lawyers and accountants, who could provide world-class service.

We can create a niche market for this, and that could translate well economically for us. This will also create a huge amount of employment for young professionals in our country.

Sports may be topical now, and so the question as to how to maximise the benefits of our recent showing in London is on everybody's lips. But sports is not the only answer. We have to start thinking about other creative ways of marketing and selling Jamaica, and attracting investment into this country.

We can use our recent successes to motivate us and spur us on to action items that could change our economic situation. One such item on the agenda is the redevelopment of downtown Kingston. I think that this project could be a game changer for Jamaica.

Friends, if our capital city is in bad shape, then it speaks directly to the condition of the rest of the country. We have the plans on paper to start the fix. I am hoping the action will start soon.

It's a project I feel passionately about, for obvious reasons. Downtown Kingston has been the home of GraceKennedy for 90 years now. We could never see ourselves anywhere else, and so, even when others were moving, we chose to stay put. We have never regretted that decision.

It is with the redevelopment in mind that I congratulate the UDC on taking on the downtown redevelopment project. I also commend them for earmarking $200 million in funds for social intervention initiatives downtown. And I am truly excited about the plans, which include:

* A multi-modal transportation hub;

* A festival marketplace and waterfront promenade;

* A 200-room five-star hotel and conference centre;

* A city centre park;

* The Ward Theatre Cultural Square;

* A new Parliament building; and

* The Kingston Business Centre

Can you imagine the possibilities if all this were done? But I have even more ideas regarding possibilities.

I envision cruise shipping returning to downtown Kingston, with duty-free shopping areas built for tourists to take advantage of. We have the very interesting Institute of Jamaica and our excellent National Gallery for them to visit.

Perhaps there could be a reggae museum, even an athletes' museum for them to enjoy as well. Port Royal and its rich history could be on display for all tourists to see through daily tours.

Of course, all this would need to be done with a master plan in mind, so there would have to be supporting infrastructure, such as solutions to existing traffic issues, particularly parking. That master plan should also include timelines on the project's completion, and how it would be funded. It should form a critical part of our Vision 2030.

I think you would all agree with me when I say that downtown's value has not been properly acknowledged, and that a valuable economic opportunity is not being exploited.

Jamaica is a jewel. Downtown is the diamond in the rough, waiting to be cut and polished so that it can shine as brightly as possible, and live up to its real value.

What does Jamaica's economic outlook look like? What does the future hold? We have got to find a way to start making some progress, friends. It will only get better when we start taking advantage of what we have, and using it to our benefit.

We are an island of greatness — in culture, in sports. Let us come together in unity, as a nation, to run that great race towards economic stability. It won't be a sprint; in fact, it looks more like a marathon.

I would say it is more of a relay, and every group has a part to play. The private sector, the Government, the Opposition, the unions, public sector workers all need to co-ordinate in a team effort , so we can achieve great results.

It won't be easy, but this country has heart. With our eyes firmly on the prize, and with sustained effort, we can experience economic victory too. After 50 years, Jamaica needs it. Looking to another 50, future generations are depending on it.

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