by Larry Smith
Google 'downtown redevelopment’ and you will find zillions of web pages focusing on one city after another - from Miami to Manhattan to Toronto and almost every place in between. Even Las Vegas has a downtown revitalisation programme, although the city was originally just a cattle ranch and wasn't incorporated until the 1900s.
This phenomenon came about due to major changes in urban environments over the past 60-odd years - office and retail activity today is much more dispersed than in earlier times. But despite their precipitous decline, town centres still form an important part of a community’s identity, for one reason or another. Revitalisation programmes are an effort to rebalance the urban economy and stem the loss of historic districts.
We can clearly see the problem right here on New Providence. The city of Nassau (not just the statutory limits) stretches from Bay Street to Wulff Road and from the Eastern Parade to Nassau Street, just beyond the long-vanished Western Parade. It's decline as a thriving city centre has been attributed to the removal of the public market from downtown, the construction of outlying shopping malls, and a population shift to residential suburbs.
Cynics have also laid much of the blame on the long-running political vendetta between a predominantly black government and the mostly white merchant princes who once held sway over Bay Street. But that is a gross distortion of the current reality, which is perhaps best characterised by the Finlayson family's ownership of Solomon's Mines.
The NTDB spawned the Nassau Economic Development Commission, led by the late parliamentarians Norman Solomon and George Mackey. This led to formation of the Downtown Revitalisation Committee, which eventually produced a public-private group known as the Downtown Nassau Partnership. It is anticipated that the DNP will eventually be supplanted by a new city authority created by legislation.
One of the biggest achievements of these efforts to date has been the removal of shipping facilities from the downtown area to a new purpose-built port at Arawak Cay. This has reduced traffic congestion and freed up a lot of waterfront real estate for potential redevelopment.
Pat Rahming, the architect who designed Bay Street’s latest straw market, had some interesting things to say about revitalisation efforts at an event hosted by the Nassau Institute last week. As Rahming noted, 50 years ago the entire world of the Bahamas passed through downtown Nassau.
“Every sloop and mailboat passed through downtown,” he said. "Bay Street was the place people went when they wanted to be taken seriously. It was where the Burma Road riot went. It was where we went for Junkanoo. And we celebrated Sidney Poitier’s Academy Award in what we agreed was the most important spot in the city - Rawson Square. Like moths to a flame, people were attracted to downtown and made it part of their planning.”
Today, Rahming said, there is no relationship at all between the people of the city and the place we call downtown. And what is left of the display of government is threatened by extreme disinterest and neglect. But while Bay Street may not be considered the city’s downtown anymore, it can still excel as a tourism product - an example of a colonial township - and Rahming argues that we should make the most of that.
"Yes, that leaves the city without a downtown - an urgent issue for any serious government - but every tourist city has found itself in this position,” he said. “New Orleans, San Juan, Havana, Mexico City, Montreal. They all found value as historic zones while a new downtown was built elsewhere. The key to the success of these historic zones is a vision based on an understanding of the mechanics of the tourism business.”
Indeed, the figures would indicate that despite more than half a century of study we have yet to fully comprehend our modern tourism industry. While officials talks glowingly about millions of arrivals, from 2005 to 2012 we actually lost 30 per cent of our business in terms of stopover visitors - the folks who stay in hotels. Meanwhile, cruise visitors spend only about $40 per head (after taxes), and some 43 per cent don’t even get off the ship because there is little for them to do.
"The reality is that our family business is in serious trouble and any conversation about the development of a significant product offering must centre around the opportunity to rebuild the family business,” Rahming said. "Downtown should become Old Nassau, and the development of Old Nassau must mean increasing its ability to attract more business and, more importantly, to make more money."
To Rahming, for us to do this we need to manage the experiences we offer visitors, and invent ways to help those having those experiences enjoy spending their money. In other words, wealth is created by visitors in search of a specific experience or product, which is presented in ways that make those experiences memorable. Old Nassau must become a zone of successful attractions by leveraging effective leadership and entrepreneurship.
"Old Nassau has a history and a mythology with elements that support the development of attractions. What it does not have is an attitude towards using those elements to create viable attractions. The more attractions there are, the more money changes hands. But currently, the destination sees the cost and hassle of creating attractions as the developer’s problem."
He called for more education to help Bahamians understand the opportunities that derive from successful attractions, and also to ensure that those who work in the industry as tour guides or performers are both highly trained and well-paid.
"It is simply not realistic to say you are in the business of theatre – that is, the business of presenting yourself for profit - and not have a single school for the performing arts in the country. Preparation for the family business begins with a serious commitment to training and education. Competition is stiff,” he said.
Increasingly, consumers are looking for a leisure ‘experience’ and a greater sense of destination, where once they would have been simply visiting a range of shops. Downtown must shift from a purely retail function to a wider emphasis on the visitor economy. The historic environment can provide a character-ful and distinctive backdrop to this type of end-use.
A prime example, Rahming said, was the historical fact that Columbus made his New World landfall in the Bahamas. No other destination can say that or leverage that fact. But all we do is complain that Columbus was a bad guy.
“We need to understand that the business of tourism has little to do with hotels and cruise ships. We need a community that accepts responsibility for its own economic well-being. And we need a dream for all of us to pursue towards social and economic development.”