Volume 11 Number 5
Turning the Tide in Kingston
01 October 1998

After years of decay, Jamaica's capital city has begun to see its heart restored. Martin ED Henry meets a man who has devoted the last 12 years to this challenging task.

Morin Seymour thrives on 'turning nothing into something'. Now 53, he has built a solid reputation for breathing new life into near bankrupt institutions. And he is keen to apply that experience in 'new and varied problem-solving opportunities'.

His home city of Kingston, Jamaica, provides many such opportunities. Kingston was established on a grid system in 1692 after a devastating earthquake had destroyed Port Royal, the pirate capital of the West Indies known as 'the wickedest city on earth'. Built on the seventh largest natural harbour in the world, Kingston rapidly became the commercial centre of the island and was made the capital in 1872.

As Kingston expanded, its downtown, inner-city areas deteriorated. Political violence and gang warfare during the 1970s and '80s accelerated this trend. Fire and vandalism destroyed many buildings. Companies and residents abandoned the area in droves. In the general election year of 1980 violence claimed over 800 lives in Jamaica. Most casualties were in the Kingston inner city where 'garrisons' supported different political parties.

By 1985, more than a quarter of the non-residential buildings in some areas had either been classified as ruins or abandoned. Most of the remaining residents were poor and unemployed. High crime rates discouraged private investment, and encouraged more businesses to relocate.

Into this breach stepped the Kingston Restoration Company (KRC), formed in March 1983 by a group of leading businesspeople along with the government's Urban Development Corporation. The company's mission was 'to assist in the creation of the conditions necessary for sustainable physical, cultural, social and economic development of downtown Kingston'. From the outset the founders recognized that urban rehabilitation had to go beyond the restoration of derelict buildings to the restoration, the redemption, of human persons and their broken communities.

The company had a big vision but little money, no office, no staff -- until Morin Seymour took on the job of Executive Director in July 1986.

He came with an impressive track record. At 29, in 1974, he had been appointed secretary of Island Life Insurance Company, which had an asset base of J$365,000 and was facing losses of J$18,000 per year. He organized the recapitalization of the ailing company and successfully negotiated the purchase of two other small life insurance companies. He also spearheaded the development and marketing of new insurance products. When he left Island Life in 1980, the company was making J$1 million profit per annum with assets of J$60 million.

Seymour then took over as Managing Director of the National Housing Trust (NHT), a position that had been vacant for three months. The NHT had been established by the government in 1976 as a public agency to meet the chronic housing shortage in the country. He arrived to find a strike in progress with guard dogs and police officers on the compound and the managing director's office under guard. He quickly got the strike settled.

The NHT was meant to be financed by compulsory payroll deductions and the mortgage payments of beneficiaries. But there was a net cash deficit of J$300 million, with annual losses of around J$15 million. Seymour restructured the Trust, while pulling in outstanding contributions from delinquent employers.

Over the next four years the NHT's assets increased from J$350 million to J$1 billion. By then the NHT was building 70 per cent of the 4,000 new housing units being constructed each year in Jamaica.

When I asked Seymour how he came to the Kingston Restoration Company, he simply said, 'I think it was providential.'

When Seymour started, the company had J$2,000 in its account. He could use a desk in the office of the KRC's Vice-Chairman, one of the country's leading architects.

Calling upon his connections from his NHT days, Morin Seymour approached the United States Agency for International Development for assistance. USAID liked the idea of the KRC but said they had no money. But 'I think I could find J$650,000 to restore a building downtown,' the agency's director conceded.

The project chosen was the abandoned headquarters of the country's leading drinks manufacturer, Desnoes and Geddes (D&G). The deal almost collapsed when D&G changed its mind because of the violence in the area. But they agreed to give the KRC a lease on the building for 49 years at just J$10 per year.

Wasn't Seymour put off by the fact that the company was dormant and broke? 'No,' he quickly replied. 'The company presented the challenge to take nothing and make something of it. I felt that if I could do that then I would be serving not just the city but the people of the city who had been abandoned and needed help.'

The Inner Kingston Development Project (IKDP) was designed in 1986 as a joint venture project of the KRC and the Urban Development Corporation. It targeted a 100-block area which included the major commercial district and residential communities and was backed by US$6.9 million from USAID and local funding of J$10 million.

The IKDP's strategy was four-fold: development of industrial and commercial properties and public buildings; the provision of restoration grants for building improvements; enhancement of major streets; and a dynamic community development programme.

In 12 years, some 400,000 square feet of office and industrial space has been rehabilitated and 2,300 jobs created. Dozens of restoration grants have been made to small businesses. The downtown thoroughfares of King and Duke Streets have been restored to their former regal glory. Some buildings which were beyond repair, and sometimes acted as criminal hideouts, have been demolished to create green open spaces or parking areas.

The KRC now has its own offices in Duke Street. The building has been owned by the Anglican Church since 1890 but was in a dilapidated state and occupied by undesirable tenants. It was offered to the KRC by the bishop if the company could get the occupants out. Seymour had quit notices legally enforced, restored the building and leased it from the church at a peppercorn rent.

Seymour could not have succeeded with the KRC in inner-city Kingston, a battlefield of political tribalism, without being accepted and 'certified' as politically neutral by all sides. The KRC itself was conceived as an institutional bridge between the private and public sectors. And Seymour and the KRC have built political bridges by neutrality and even-handedness in project design and execution, and by not bowing to political pressure.

Morin Seymour's greatest pride and joy are the KRC's human rehabilitation projects.

A 1988 study revealed that 40 per cent of inner-city high school students were dropping out. In response, the KRC set up the Youth Educational Support System (YESS) project. It operates a Teen Centre as a base for social, cultural and outreach activities and as a quiet place for doing homework and study. It also offers leadership training to young people.

'YESS has had a profound effect on my life,' says 19-year-old Samuel Pyne, 'The programme enables me to be what I want to be without being affected by the negative factors that would have limited my potential.'

'I have learnt a lot about having self-respect and being disciplined,' says 15-year-old Janine Evans, a 10th grader who has also attended computer classes at the Teen Centre.

Just days before our interview, a 16-year-old girl in trouble with the law for a minor offence used her only telephone call to contact the Teen Centre late at night from a police lock-up out of town. Quick action by the centre caretaker had her released, with proper guarantees to appear in court.

Simone Hull, the Public Relations Manager of the KRC, is a product of the YESS and the Teen Centre who went on to obtain a university degree in mass communication and still lives in the community.

The Teen Centre is part of a larger complex which houses a basic school and a clinic. The clinic, which is a joint venture with a local Baptist church, receives 2,000 patients per month. The complex also has a library and a photography club, and a thrift shop and skills training centre are planned.

Crime has been a major challenge to the KRC, not least because its work disturbs the status quo of turf and power. One political leader advised Morin Seymour not to hold anti-drug marches without his knowledge. Seymour gave him to understand that only the police needed to be notified, and pressed on undaunted.

Some staff members have quietly quit under pressure but as yet no restored building has been burned or abandoned and no worker has been hurt. Recognizing the importance of community policing, the KRC has refurbished and upgraded the Gold Street police station with the help of the Canadian International Development Agency and local businesses.

Morin Seymour is not only a great fund-raiser and marketing man. He is a Methodist lay preacher and circuit steward. He is also Vice-Chairman of the Board of Excelsior Education Centre, the largest complex of schools from kindergarten to college in Jamaica. He is a devoted family man, married to Verla for 26 years. They have a son and a daughter.

For the last 12 years Morin Seymour's visionary leadership of the KRC has been a blessing in an environment of violence, poverty and despair. He says that he is 'blessed to be leading young, bright professionals who are willing to risk working in the inner city'.
Martin ED Henry