Ruxton man prepares Panama for prosperity

May 12, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

Baltimore County resident Jay Warren spent five months in the Republic of Panama last year, advising that country on how to deal with $30 billion in property it will receive from the United States at the end of this decade.

In 1991, he happily spent two months in arid Bahrain, a Middle Eastern emirate on the Persian Gulf.

"Panama's problem is massive, and the clock is ticking," Mr. Warren said. "It could be great or it could be a debacle. Bahrain's situation is not as pressing, but just as serious."

At the age of 67, Mr. Warren has found a new way to enjoy life: working in the service of his country for free.

He is a member of the International Executive Service Corp. (IESC) of Stamford, Conn., a nonprofit, government-supported enterprise that sends retired business executives on problem-solving trips around the world.

"Bahrain's oil is going to run out in about 20 years," said Mr. Warren, who lives in Ruxton Ridge and has a master's degree in economic geography from the University of Illinois. "They're anxious to diversify their economic base."

Mr. Warren knows about such things. He was director of real estate and industrial development when he retired from CSX five years ago. His specialty is in land use and planning.

He joined the IESC through his brother, who has accepted various assignments from the organization. Mr. Warren's experience was typical of the way IESC works. It gets its recruits through word of mouth and a nationwide network of volunteers who make recommendations on available and talented people.

Created by the Johnson administration in 1965, the IESC sent about 3,000 middle- and upper-management retirees to 52 countries last year. It pays travel expenses and a per diem to its assignees, the amount of the per diem depending on the country. It also will pay the spouse's expenses if the assignment is for longer than three weeks. Mr. Warren's wife, Chris, went along on one of his excursions to Panama.

The organization's $29 million annual budget is financed by corporate contributions of about $500,000, plus $5 million from various overseas business clients. The rest comes from the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to Jerry Hargitt, vice president for recruiting and public relations.

"It helps the United States to encourage the free enterprise system and create markets," Mr. Hargitt said, "and Americans want to serve in parts of the world where the word 'altruism' is a mystery."

During his two trips to Panama last year, Mr. Warren set up a staff and office, and worked with a Panamanian committee on hiring a world-class consultant to create a master plan to develop the property. He may go back, he said.

The amount of property Panama will try and convert into something useful is awesome: 4,829 buildings, some dating to early in this century; 22 million square feet of floor space; 84,368 acres. Maintaining the property costs $49 million a year.

The property will become Panama's through a 1977 treaty signed by President Carter, which requires the United States to relinquish all property and operation of the 50-mile-long Panama Canal by Dec. 31, 1999, ending U.S. control of the canal that began in 1904. Under terms of the treaty, the U.S. will have a voice in the canal's operation and the fees charged.

Since the treaty was implemented in 1979, the United States already has turned over some property to Panama, a country with a population of 2 1/2 million -- about the size of West Virginia. About 10,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed there, plus 2,500 U.S. civilians.

The United States invaded the country in December 1989 to oust dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Noriega is now serving a 40-year sentence in this country for drug dealing and racketeering.

"The Panamanians are wonderful people, and the people I worked with are well-educated and intelligent," Mr. Warren said. "But they have little experience in planning and handling large amounts of property. There's no infrastructure for it."

Panama has a president and a national legislature, but there is considerable political in-fighting, and the public is disenchanted with its politicians. In a poll conducted last year on political favorites, entertainer Ruben Blades, who is considering seeking the presidency, had the distinction of running second to "Nobody." National elections will be held next May.

The fear of political instability also has kept foreign investment down, said Mr. Warren, and banditry is prevalent.

"Private security is big business. There are heavily armed guards at banks and restaurants and other places of business," he said. "However, I felt safe in the city of Panama, the capital, as safe as anywhere in the United States."

Despite these potential drawbacks, Panama has several attributes, including a highly sophisticated banking system.

Panama also has an oil refining industry and is thick with banana plantations. However, tourism has gone unexploited. "The possibilities there are immense," said Mr. Warren, "but they haven't marketed tourism, haven't really scratched the surface.

"It's just a question of whether they're going to be ready in time to handle all the material and property they are going to get."

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