by Larry Smith
Several years ago in this space, I offered this charming description of the city of Nassau…
For over 20 years private sector leaders have been seeking to persuade successive governments to sanction, if not actually lead, the revitalisation of downtown Nassau. And for over 20 years the city has steadily decomposed into a filthy, traffic-choked slum, overrun with hucksters and dope peddlers.
Driving through town is like navigating an obstacle course. It's a miracle pedestrians are not slaughtered by the dozen. Dowdy stores advertise cheap t-shirts to even cheaper cruise ship passengers - these days, hardly anyone else shops on the main drag, whose dirty sidewalks are infested with bums and street peddlers.
Incredibly, the straw market remains a gaping hole in the ground five years after it burned down, while vendors swelter under a makeshift tent. Bay Street east of the Churchill Building has become a no-go zone of derelict shops and ugly freight terminals.
It is increasingly difficult to recall the Nassau that used to be - before the decline of the 1980s. Business and political leaders have been talking about reviving the city ever since, but a tortuous drive through town will convince anyone that nothing much is happening. In fact, things seem only to be getting worse.
Well, something concrete IS finally happening. In fact, things seem actually to be getting better.
And over the past year or two, the government has been working on major infrastructure upgrades downtown. Contracts are in place to repair or replace drains, sewers and water lines, and repave Bay Street all the way from Navy Lion Road to Mackey Street.
More than just the usual talk, these works - together with moving the cargo port - are absolutely necessary to signal that we have reached a major turning point, and to attract private investment. And the contours of that investment are already apparent.
The Elizabeth on Bay Marketplace and Marina was the first to come on stream. Opening in late 2010, it represents a $14 million investment by the Klonaris family to resurrect the old Moses Plaza, with a mix of small shops, restaurants and offices.
A month or so ago the Bethell family started work on a $6 million, 100-slip marina in front of the Green Parrot and Luciano's restaurants on eastern Bay Street. Tentatively named Calico Jack's, it will feature a pirate motif. The five-acre landside area will include the two existing restaurants plus a 400-foot strip of public boardwalk along the waterfront.
The Bethells are also seeking joint venture partners to redevelop 15 acres of waterfront property along Bay Street known collectively as John Alfred Wharf. And the vacant four-acre former freight terminal known as Union Wharf, on the northeast corner of Elizabeth Avenue and Bay Street, is up for grabs at $22 million.
Meanwhile, the Kelly family is planning to redevelop the former Betty K freight terminal off East Street North, in conjunction with other property owners on the block, going east to the government publications site (formerly the Imperial Lighthouse Service depot). Architects have already begun to master plan the area for a mixed use project to be known as Charlestown Wharf.
The plan is to redevelop the whole block as a commercial/entertainment centre, to include restaurants, a marina, office space, shops, stalls, and a public boardwalk along the waterfront. A multi-story parking garage will be built on adjacent land south of Bay Street. And a junkanoo museum is being proposed for the government print shop site, which is a major anomaly on the waterfront.
"We see this as an opportunity to create a cultural epicentre to help revitalize the city and continue the Kelly family legacy of philanthropy and entrepreneurship," Steven Kelly told me. "It will feature a landmark entrance that will attract visitors and Bahamians, and include an open-air entertainment courtyard, harbourside restaurant, retail and office space, and berths for yachts and water taxis."
At the other end of Bay Street there is the redevelopment across from the Western Esplanade spearheaded by web shop kingpin Craig Flowers. His FML Group's $8 million office building replaced a derelict hotel and is flanked to the east by an old Bahamian residence, formerly used as a restaurant, that is being painstakingly restored.
"(This) is really going to stand out when we’re finished,” Flowers said after acquiring the dilapidated property in late 2010. “We’re going to use it as a space for young people from over-the-hill to exhibit their artwork and handicrafts to the tourists who will be able to pass through the building to visit the D'Aguilar Art Foundation gallery right behind us."
A short distance away - on historic Cumberland Street - is Hillside House, a 19th century back building to a residence that no longer exists. It was recently renovated as a studio and gallery by well-known Bahamian artist Antonius Roberts. He has preserved the historical integrity of the building, including the existing fireplace, some wooden beams and the cut limestone walls.
"Hillside House embodies my philosophy on preservation," Roberts told me. "It speaks directly to the fact that private money has enabled the restoration of the physical building with the hope and intention that this will positively impact the immediate surroundings and could perhaps be described as a 'pilot' to the re-development of the downtown core."
He said the restoration was "a well-planned effort to bring a sustainable cultural experience to the core, and build a relationship with surrounding communities. A link has been established with other like-minded entities - the National Art Gallery and the D'Aguilar Art Foundation in particular - all of us working together in this effort."
Meanwhile, Aubaine Capital, a London-based investment firm that owns the landmark British Colonial property, will be expanding parking and making improvements to the area west of the hotel – creating a beach experience for visitors and residents. Aubaine is also expanding and upgrading retail space along Navy Lion Road between Bay Street and Woodes Rogers Wharf in anticipation of the opening of Pompey Square.
Pompey Square is a new public park that is being created between Vendue House and the privately owned Seamen's Chapel, which are both in the process of being rebuilt after last December's fire.
This $2.1 million public/private sector project, coordinated by the Downtown Nassau Partnership and the Ministries of Works and Culture, should be completed by late summer. It will include a stretch of public boardwalk to the north of Woodes Rogers Wharf that will eventually extend along most of Bay Street.
Jacaranda House, on Parliament Street opposite the now-demolished Royal Victoria Hotel, is a stately colonial home built in 1840 by the then chief justice. It sits on 1.5 acres of land in the centre of town, and has been owned by the Oakes family since 1949. Plans are in the works for a restaurant, boutique bar and membership club.
In Parliament Square, work is underway to renovate the historic public buildings. The centre building (which now houses the Senate), was built around 1790 as the original home of the House of Assembly. The eastern and western buildings were added in the early 1800s.
The eastern building has already been restored. Exterior renovation of the western building (which houses the House of Assembly) and the central building (which houses the Senate) is also completed and plans are being developed to refit the interiors.
Bids are presently being evaluated to renovate the Supreme Court building, and architects are reviewing improvements to the Public Library and Central Services Building. Landscaping and site improvements for the entire area (including the Garden of Remembrance and Rawson Square) will be undertaken when construction is finished. The total investment is more than $25 million.
The venerable Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant (operated since 1973 by Italian chef Enrico Garzarolli) has expanded throughout the historic neighborhood west of Government House. Investors are being sought to begin work on several derelict historic buildings along West Hill Street, and Garzarolli is touting a $25 million "heritage village" that will include a Bahamian market, chocolate factory, coffee factory, cigar factory, more restaurants and other attractions.
Already underway on nearby Delancey Street is a major restoration and expansion of the Buena Vista estate, home to one of Nassau's finest restaurants from the 1950s until 2006. Now owned by a government agency, the Buena Vista has been leased to five members of the Bacardi family who plan to open a boutique distillery and visitor attraction on the 2.6-acre property this fall.
Completed in the early 1800s, the Buena Vista was home to a number of prominent citizens over more than two centuries, including military men, colonial officials, judges, reverends and winter residents - some of whom are buried nearby in the Western cemetery. The estate was a private residence until 1947, when it opened as a small hotel and restaurant for "men and women of cultivated taste". After closing five years ago it was ransacked by copper thieves and vagrants.
But restoration has now begun with the removal of derelict structures added over the past 50 years, as approved by both the Antiquities Corporation and the Department of Physical Planning. On vacant land at the rear of the house, a micro-distillery is being built to produce a range of premium Bahamian spirits, while offering a unique visitor experience.
Branded after a pirate named John Watling, the distillery's products, like the estate itself, will be steeped in Bahamian history and heritage, the developers say.
"The idea germinated when Bacardi closed its 61-acre rum factory (near Adelaide) a few years ago," Pepin Argamasilla told me during a recent tour of the site. "The Bacardi family has been closely connected with the Bahamas since we left Cuba in 1960, and Bacardi rum had been produced here since 1965.
"We studied the micro-brewing and boutique wine industries and concluded that we could fill a niche in the marketplace and develop a popular visitor attraction at the same time. The Buena Vista was the ideal location due to its proximity to the cruise port and its historical heritage, and we are excited to play a part in the revitalization of the city."
Argamasilla was a Bacardi historian for more than a decade, while his partner Jose Portuondo was operations manager at Bristol Cellars in Nassau. Three other relatives are involved in the partnership, which has nothing to do with Bacardi rum. The new distillery will hand-produce about 10,000 cases a year of rum, flavoured vodka and other spirits. The Buena Vista itself will become a visitor centre, with shops, a bar and outdoor "Caribbean tapas" dining.
So clearly there is a lot going on, although most observers agree it has been a long time coming.
"As with any renovation, we faced a lot of unexpected difficulties," Ed Fields of the Downtown Nassau Partnership explained to me. "For the last two years it has been slow going, but people often don't understand the problems involved in terms of infrastructure placement in particular. The good news is that the revitalization of the city is supported by both major parties and most of the difficulties are behind us."
In the next three to four years, he said, "our survival as a major destination will depend heavily on whether we can re-establish our unique appeal, especially with the prospect of Cuba opening up and casinos being built in Florida. There has to be an authentic reason for people to come here - not just because of hotels. People don't choose a destination because it has a particular hotel. We are only at the beginning of this transformation, but we are now in a position to move ahead faster."
As if to underline that fact, a young entrepreneur named Jaime Lewis has launched a company called Islandz (www.islandztours.com) that explicitly seeks to capitalize on the revitalization that has taken place already. Lewis, who has a history degree from the University of the West Indies, will be leading downtown walking tours covering key historic sites, as well as cultural attractions like the National Art Gallery and Antonius Roberts' Hillside House.
His marketing motto? "Think outside the beach."