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Jamaica hopes to become tourism destination

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With centuries of history, blocks of stores and a variety of cultural institutions, downtown Jamaica has everything it needs to become a tourist destination.

And now the area’s business, educational and cultural organizations are working together to see it happen.

Representatives of the groups met with state Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-South Ozone Park) and Assemblyman Joseph Morelle (D-Rochester), chairman of the Committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development, last week to pitch Jamaica as a tourism center as well as to get some advice on how to market the area.

The assembly members toured some of Jamaica’s sights last Thursday morning, including King Manor Museum, York College and the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning.

“There’s a lot of history here and there’s a lot of things going on here that people in the rest of the state should know,” Cook said after the tour. “People from all over come to Jamaica to shop and see the sights.”

The Cultural Collaborative Jamaica began promoting tourism in Jamaica through brochures but is ready to take it to the next level, said the group’s executive director, Tyra Emerson. Aside from the hip-hop clothing stores that line Jamaica Avenue and the newly opened Jamaica Center, featuring national retailers such as Old Navy and the Gap, and a 15-screen movie theater, the area has three churches with 300-year-old congregations, and King Manor, home to Rufus King, one of the framers of the Constitution.

The collaborative is planning to establish a tourist center once it moves into its new home in the Reform Dutch Church on Jamaica Avenue and has received a three-year grant from the Ford Foundation to run walking tours, Emerson said. The tours can be led by area teens, who can receive a certification allowing them to lead tours anywhere, she said.

“Even residents would like to know more about the community,” she said.

Jamaica also welcomes thousands of employees every day, including those heading to Kennedy Airport as well as those staying in the area, such as the more than 500 workers at the headquarters of the Queens Borough Public Library in Jamaica.

“We have made a commitment to stay in Jamaica with our headquarters,” said Gary Strong, director of the library. “The library is a key piece of the economic strength in Jamaica.”

But, Morelle warned, an area’s employees should have something to do in the area after work.

“Creating jobs and economic development is really what it’s all about,” he said. “If we’re going to attract young people with job opportunities, we have to provide them with entertainment.”

Cultural groups along Jamaica Avenue have long complained that the strip closes after 6 p.m., but they are hoping to keep people out later with help from the Jamaica Multiplex movie house.

“Along with the shopping, we’re trying to create a night life as well,” said Alex Campos from Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning.

On a state level, Morelle suggested the groups push for a dedicated fund for tourism that would draw money from a new cash stream. For example, the state could set aside a percentage of revenue from upstate native American casinos to promote tourism elsewhere, he said.

But the most important thing is to get the word out, said U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans), who also attended the discussion.

“There are a lot of things happening in this community,” he said. “The community is a unique community because of its history and we need to let the world know it.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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