West Indians began migrating to the Connecticut River Valley during World War II and quickly found agricultural jobs in the region. Many worked in the valley's thriving tobacco industry. Today, the Hartford area has one of the country's largest populations of residents of West Indian descent. In 2004, a group of volunteers formed the Hartford Caribbean Trade Council to promote commerce between Connecticut and Caribbean island nations. The nonprofit group is overseen by a nine-member board.
Andrew Lawrence, who is of Jamaican descent, is a Hartford police officer, local businessman and president and director of the trade council.
Q Why was the trade council established?
A The purpose of the council is to encourage trade to come into Hartford, as opposed to only coming through New York and Florida. By having products come into Bradley International Airport, for example, the Hartford area gets a tax base and the residents of Hartford get lower prices for all the products rather than the products having to go to New York and then be trucked all the way back here. We are an economic development initiative of the city.
Q Is the council concentrating on bolstering trade with nations whose people have settled in the Hartford area?
A We're open to any Caribbean market, although some islands produce more goods for export than others. Jamaica is a prime example. Jamaica has a really large export and manufacturing base. Haiti does not have a manufacturing base, but Haiti has agricultural products such as mangoes. There is a big demand for all goods from the Caribbean here.
Q A Jamaican newspaper recently reported that supermarkets in the Hartford area were negotiating to provide shelf space for Jamaican products. Can you provide details?
A Super Stop & Shop, Big Y, Shaw's, Price Chopper, Price Rite are all carrying a limited supply of West Indian products. We want to expand that.
Whatever is consumed in the islands, there is a demand for it here. A lot of the demand comes from tourism. One of the major companies is now doing frozen dinners. Then there's an instant porridge we're used to having growing up as children in the islands. Pre-made foods, whatever is shown on the Food Network, the seasonings, the juices, the syrups we use to make our punches, all of it is in demand because of tourism. It's not only the people of West Indian descent and tourists who are interested in the products, but think about the children who are introduced to products by their friends.
Q The city was recently host to the council's trade exhibition and investment seminar. What resulted?
A For one thing, we gained exposure. There also was dialogue between the major supermarkets and a lot of the exporters. A lot of the supermarket chains attended and the talk is continuing. The council does not get into the day-to-day negotiation of what products are going to go from Point A to Point B. We are facilitators who bring them together so they can have dialogue between buyers and suppliers.
Also, the trade is going both ways. It's not just about importing, but also about exporting products and services from the Greater Hartford area. One of the things discussed at the exhibition was the possibility of developing a distribution warehouse in Jamaica for a local company that provides electrical fixtures and consulting services to major resorts being built in the Caribbean.
Q Another stated goal of the council is to promote tourism. Where does this effort stand?
A We are looking to promote tourism both ways, so Hartford could be a tourism entity for Caribbean tourists. Air Jamaica is in talks with Bradley to see if they could be allowed entry there. They'd be able to then bring tourists here to the state and the entire state would benefit if tourists wanted to go to the casinos or to visit the Mark Twain House, for example.
Q How would you say the Hartford region has benefited from the council's work?
A One example is that we are one of the major drivers to have Bradley International Airport as a point of entry. I think once it becomes a major point of entry, where it has [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] inspections and full customs inspections, not only is that something the trade council is going to take advantage of, but other companies throughout the state are going to take advantage of that. I think the economy that's going to be benefiting is the general economy of the state. I don't think the state would make Bradley a point of entry just for us, but by us pushing for that, it keeps that ball rolling.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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