300 private and public sector reps discuss growing the economy at the Biltmore

Roughly 300 persons from the private and public sector met at the Biltmore in Belize City this morning for Business Forum 2014, hosted by the Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, Minister of Finance and Economic Development, under the theme, "Strengthening Partnership for Growth".

The forum is being held against the backdrop of a 0.4% slump in the country's economy for the first quarter of 2014.

At the forum held in 2012, Kay Menzies, co-chair of the Economic Development Council for the private sector, had said that the cost of business is way too high. Today, she told us that they still find that to be the case, and so they continue to stress the need for tax reform and, where possible, the reduction of processes for doing business.

In her welcome remarks, Amparo Masson, director of the Public-Private Sector Dialogue for the Government of Belize, spoke of plans to simplify the tax structure.

"The private sector has always maintained that the tax is onerous, it's burdensome, the layers are too many," Masson said.

Kay Menzies, EDC co-chair (center)

She explained that if the tax structure were to be simplified, that would in turn reduce tax evasion, and the Government would get its fair share of revenues, which would consequently stimulate economic activities.

Menzies noted that today's forum covered four critical areas: business climate and service delivery, banking and finance, investments and trade or exports, and infrastructure and technology. For each session, a panel of persons from both the private and public sectors was convened, followed by a question and answer segment.

The media was only allowed to stay for the opening ceremony and not for the panel discussions, and so we spoke with Menzies after the forum concluded to get an update on the outcome of today's event. She told us that the forum was designed to collect input for the Economic Development Council, which will then put those ideas into its action plan, to be channeled to the Office of the Prime Minister.

The EDC, a 10-member body co-chaired by Ministry of Trade CEO Michael Singh, was established in 2011, after Barrow hosted the first Business Forum under the theme, 'Turning the Corner'.

"I am hoping that the interchanges among them [the private sector] and between ourselves and them will help us all to better crystalize this joint effort of taking Belize forward by continued economic growth and by the expansion of business activity, social mobility and enterprise creation," Barrow said in his keynote speech at today's opening.

He also spoke of the wider economic landscape, previewing an imminent announcement by the Government and Belize Telemedia Limited for better and cheaper Internet services - this in light of concerns previously expressed by the private sector over prevailing telecommunications costs. At the 2011 forum, the private sector lobbied for the liberalization of Voice over Internet Protocol, and since then VoIP has been liberalized.

Job creation also formed a part of today's dialogue. Prime Minister Barrow mentioned the addition of 2,600 jobs by the business-process-outsourcing companies. Singh also spoke of the need to create more permanent jobs within the private sector.

"We need a long-term development plan where enterprise development can take up the slack and convert some of these people that are on work programs to permanent jobs, to make sure that we are training people to get ready for the new economy, to make sure that the private sector is able to operate in an environment where they can expand, where they can thrive and where they can hire more people, and where we can raise the entire standard of living through that medium rather than through simply government programs," Singh told our newspaper.

The last labor force survey reported that 10,605 Belize residents had been without a job for more than six months, but Singh said that more jobs are being created, and hundreds of jobs are coming online in the agriculture sector: Green Tropics, a new sugar cane production enterprise, has hired up to 550 new employees and expects to expand its employee base to 850, while expansions at Belize Sugar Industries and in the citrus sector should bring more new jobs online, Singh indicated. He also said that what was formerly Fresh Catch is back in operation. Known today as Fine Catch, the company now owned by Michael Feinstein intends to employ 400-600 persons when it becomes fully operational, Singh said.

All the parties with whom we spoke today expressed optimism about the business partnership initiative.

"With strong and committed partnerships, open dialogue, focused efforts, and respect for one another, with the core vision always at the center, we will advance," said Masson.

"On a whole, the business community was interacting in a very encouraging way," Menzies told us after the close of the forum.

She noted that during the discussion for the third panel on investment and trade, corruption was cited as one of the impediments to development. The participants also discussed energy development and the limitations set on small businesses which need financing and investment.

Masson noted in her remarks that, "The need for a focused partnership has never been more necessary. We share one core vision and that is the development of the Belizean economy´┐Ż"

We asked Menzies how the partnership between the Government and the private sector has been working at the level of the Economic Development Council, and she told us that it has been working "excellently."

"It took a while. It is a giant trust-building exercise," she said, adding that the EDC is comprised of "a group of very dedicated people" from across the private and public divide tasked with working for the betterment of the community.

We asked how involved the Asian and Hindu members of the private sector, who are prominent in the wholesale, retail and services sector, are in this process of strengthening the partnership between the public and private sector, and Menzies said that the dialogue is really sector-based, and is not divided along ethnic lines.

"None of those people have really made any overt attempts to want to be part of the [Economic Development Council], but in this process that we are going through right now, where the structure is being looked at, I don't know what's going to be proposed," Masson told us, adding that an opportunity may exist on that front.