Digicel — the tonic for downtown Kingston's revival

Digicel — the tonic for downtown Kingston's revival

By BALFORD HENRY Observer senior reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 25, 2013

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Less than six months after moving downtown, ignoring the advice of the average Jamaican, Digicel is thumbing its nose at its detractors.

"People thought we were crazy," said Digicels' Head of Consumer Sales, Patrick King, who blamed the "ill-advised" success on chairman, Denis O'Brien's appetite for challenges.

"The mentality of our chairman is that he is not afraid of taking a great risk to do what he thinks is right," King related the build-up to Digicel's move from the more confortable business environment in New Kingston to the blighted coastal, downtown Kingston atmosphere.

"When he heard about the plans for the redevelopment of downtown Kingston, he came here to visit and see for himself, because he is a hands-on person and he wanted to tour downtown Kingston to see exactly what we were talking about," King recalled.

"Once the decision was made, the plan to implement was immediately put into action," he went on.

King was explaining to a spellbound audience at the recent Leaders-to-Leaders business forum at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel in New Kingston, how Digicel arrived at the decision to build its global office in the inner city.

According to him, Digicel was panning on erecting its global corporate office closer to New Kingston, when O'Brien became aware of plans to redevelop downtown Kingston and took a liking to that.

"Not only were we to put our offices downtown, but we were to invest in downtown, as well," said King.

With the city having lost to the more spacious and modern New Kingston commercial community most of its businesses and government offices, and the crowds they pull, Digicel had to search out limited commercial possibilities to find the most suitable location for building its global office, as well as projects which would help to promote it.

The company confounded its critics by settling on investing approximately US$2 million (J$200 million) in the redevelopment of the city's main produce market, the Coronation Market, less than a few metres away from the most volatile downtown communities. The market had been the scene of many deadly exchanges between criminal gunmen and the security forces - one of the main factors contributing to the decline in the fortunes of the area since the 1970s.

The investment created a new floor housing with stalls for over 900 market vendors, with a new roof which collects rainfall for use in the sanitary conveniences during dry periods and new bathroom facilities.

This was followed by an even more puzzling move by Digicel, which was to set up a retail store inside the market.

"A lot of people questioned why we would do that," King admitted.

But obviously Digicel's bold corporate spirit could not be tamed and, eventually, the company opened a fully electronic superstore on the ground floor of its new corporate building.

King said that the company was considering putting this superstore uptown, between King's and Tropical Plaza (Constant Spring Road), or opposite the KFC franchise in Montego Bay. Eventually, they decided to locate it inside the downtown Kingston building.

"Every single handset inside that store is live, so you get the experience of what it is really like. Every handset has a tablet linked to it, so if you want to know the price, you press a button: If you want to compare it to other handsets, you press a button; and there is a short video, too," King explained.

"The store has the largest touch wall, not a touch screen, an entire wall where you can compare handsets: It's a first world presentation of a sales model. You can even take a picture and e-mail it to a friend while you are there. So it's a real fun experience that our customers have down there," he said.

"People thought we were crazy to put a store like that downtown, but in typical Digicel fashion, a challenge is nothing to us: We placed that store downtown and I can tell you that store has exceeded all our sales projections," he added.

With the success, Digicel has also been pumping back some of the profits into downtown Kingston, hoping to create an environment that will encourage investor confidence in the city; something neither the government, the local government authority, the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation (KSAC) nor the downtown business community, which includes all country's major banks, have failed to do over the past decade.

Following a fire inside the city's next largest produce market, Redemption Ground, the company invested US$500,000 in a new roof and the refurbishing of 130 stalls.

"Our association with downtown can't be just to plant our building down there. We want to participate. We want to energise. It is part of the DNA at Digicel to be dynamic and that is what we wanted to bring to downtown," King stated.

Another amazing Digicel project to energise downtown was the 5K Night Run/Walk in 2012, "Take Back the Night", which staged during the night to show that there is still hope for downtown's night life.

The first such event to be staged in Jamaica, it raised funds to assist eight of the city's best known charities, including Mustard Seeds Communities, the Jamaica Association on Intellectual Disabilities, the Jamaica Autism Support Association, the Jamaica Association for the Blind and the Jamaica Association for the Deaf.

But King insists that Digicel's contribution to the Kingston's growth and development is not a one-way traffic, as Kingston has been paying back the company for its confidence by contributing immensely to its phenomenal growth.

"The real important thing to note is that Digicel is in three areas- the Caribbean, Latin America and Oceana, but Digicel chose to build their global head office in Kingston, Jamaica," King pointed out."There was no Digicel before Digicel was launched in Jamaica 11 years ago, so Digicel is not in Jamaica, Digicel is with Jamaica. Jamaica's ups are Digicel's ups, and Jamaica's challenges are Digicel's challenges."

"The move downtown has been mutually beneficial. We had actually outgrown our accommodation in New Kingston, so there was a big advantage to move the entire employee base to more spacious and more aesthetically pleasing accommodation, under one roof," King explained.

The new corporate building overlooking the former Victoria Pier where ships once docked letting off lustful sailors into the passionate embrace of downtown's nightlife, but which now accommodates mostly car parks that go to sleep at dusk, like the rest of the city, stands out like reminder of what Digicel means to downtown Kingston.

The building comprises an 11-storey office block, separate food court building and ancillary building with commercial units and plant space. The complex is constructed over a basement podium housing car parking. The total floor area is 13,865sq m. The glazed office building is shaded from the sun by external louvres that cut out unwanted solar gain while allowing a view onto the surroundings.

It is the most environmentally friendly major office building in the Caribbean, making use of solar power, wind power and geothermal cooling systems. The building features three wind turbines on the roof of the tower, 1,500sq m of solar panels and solar glass on the roofs of all three buildings. Meanwhile, the geothermal cooling system reduces power consumption and eliminates the use of both potable water and unsightly cooling towers.

Situated on the waterfront in downtown Kingston, the Digicel development will span a total area of 211,500 square feet. Specifically, Digicel is developing a 154,700 square foot 11 storey, plus basement office building - as well as a 7,050 square foot food court and an 11,000 square foot two storey ancillary building over a basement car park.

"The building has four wind turbines on the roof, which helps with alternative energy solutions," King stated, and there are loopers on the mainly glass building, which lets in the light but deflects the heat.

There are 15,000 square feet of solar panels on the roof, and all the lights in the building are LED and motion censor controlled: Once there is no movement, they automatically go off, and the temperature is controlled by computer.

As the sun moves from East to West, so does the AC, which covers the parts of the building which needs it most and doesn't waste energy. All the rain water which is collected is stored underground, to be used in the buildings sanitary facilities.

Denis O'Brien's insistence in taking on the challenge of reviving interest in downtown Kingston may have been one costly first step to its redevelopment. But the building which already seems to be setting a precedent for energy efficiency and aesthetic value in the city, plus the spirit in which Digicel has been promoting the development of the its cultural activities and the growing response from consumers, suggests that with this investment, Digicel may have offered the city its best chance for the renaissance that has been so elusive over the past two decades.


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