By LARRY SMITH
THIS weekend, social media land was in a tizzy - with many Bahamians aghast at a spoof produced like a promotional video. The film featured a syrupy narration illustrated by scenes showing some of the underside of Nassau’s tourist core. Here are some excerpts:
“Nassau. Prepare yourself to set sail for sun and adventure … Smell that? So do we ... Look at that view ... Feel the sand and cigarette butts run through your fingertips. Perfect for that family getaway – if you hate your family ... Fine dining with the friendliest staff ... Explore the world’s largest collection of booty shorts. Exotic wildlife and lush foliage.”
Among other things, the video footage included common sights like roadside garbage, overflowing dumpsters, overgrown verges, derelict cafes and vacant buildings near the British Colonial Hilton, roaming potcakes and sad Surrey horses. The video ended with the tag line: call 1-800-Idon’tfeelsafe.
Former BTC marketing chief Marlon Johnson posted this response on his Facebook page: “The video was a trite and unbalanced view of the Nassau experience. But it does highlight some of the glaring issues with downtown Nassau and things we should have long addressed. We have created a lousy downtown experience over the years.”
But mostly Bahamians reacted with outpourings of rage and self-righteous indignation. They were shocked, affronted, horrified and scandalised that foreigners could so easily poke fun at our fine capital city and its seductive tourism product. And ironically, the spurious video coincided with the Prime Minister’s latest spate of visions concerning the future of Nassau.
Perry Christie launched the final phase of the National Development Plan last November, promising it would be finished by June.
In March, he said “we want this plan to serve as a truly national vision for The Bahamas so that our children and grandchildren will have a roadmap before them”.
And just a few days ago he launched the Inter-American Development Bank-funded “Sustainable Nassau Initiative”, describing it as a key component
of the as-yet-unseen National
Development Plan. Apparently, this IDB initiative is
collecting data on the educational, social, cultural, environmental and infrastructural aspects of Nassau.
In his usual bombastic style, Christie referred to “a Sustainable Nassau that is alive with exciting cultural activities, opportunities for wealth creation for our young people and hubs for creativity and innovation that the country will retain the local talent needed to grow our economy”.
And a year ago, the Prime Minister was all agog about a master plan for the redevelopment of Nassau produced by the Chinese interests that had recently acquired the British Colonial Hilton property - arguably the most historic site in the capital.
The new owner is China State Construction Engineering Company, the same folks who (through a subsidiary) defaulted on completion of the Baha Mar resort.
“They’ve presented a very detailed plan to the government,” a source told The Tribune at the time of the acquisition. “And they want to do a lot more acquisitions on east Bay Street.”
According to the Prime Minister, the British Colonial project would be the anchor and prelude to a portentous public-private partnership with the Chinese to redevelop Bay Street from Arawak Cay all the way to Potters Cay. But the whole concept remains mired in controversy and uncertainty and surrounded by rumour and innuendo.
In August, the Chinese broke ground on a $250m development just west of the Hilton called The Pointe. It was pitched as a “residential development with a 200-room hotel, world-class shopping, fine dining, a 1,000-car garage, a bowling alley, and a movie theatre”.
Published plans depict a massive, multi-storey, glass and steel complex wedged between the Hilton and Junkanoo Beach, and including reclaimed land with an expansive marina. There were no public consultations on this grandiose and, what many would consider, hugely insensitive project in the heart of the city’s historical zone: approvals just appeared out of nowhere.
Interestingly, although a video on The Pointe’s website clearly shows the new development rising next to the existing British Colonial building, an online petition was recently launched demanding that the government prevent demolition of the 100-year-old British Colonial hotel.
Although there had been no suggestion that the hotel would be demolished, many persisted with the petition as a way of expressing their distrust - arguing that the government’s increasingly cozy relationship with the Chinese would allow almost anything to happen. The demise of the Baha Mar resort - which the Prime Minister now refers to as a mere “blip on the screen” - is often cited as evidence.
As Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe recently pointed out, “I think Bahamians are now sceptical of all that has happened in the recent past. I think the scepticism is to be understood.” How right you are, Obie-Wan Kenobi. No doubt you are sensing a great disturbance in the Force and responding with plain speaking.
But just a few years ago - in 2005, during the first Christie administration - Wilchcombe proved himself a master of doubletalk, when he addressed the multi-year delay in rebuilding the Nassau Straw Market after it burned to the ground in 2001. Back then, he declared that “the straw market and the vendors are invaluable to our number one industry. We want the highest level for these people, who are in fact Bahamians we should always admire.” Recall that when he said this, the straw market was no more than a gaping hole in the ground, and rebuilding was still years in the future.
Nevertheless, the anticipated new straw market complex was being touted as a key feature of a proposed $300m redevelopment of the city of Nassau. In 2004, the first Christie administration had commissioned a high-powered international planning firm named EDAW to design the plan – for a $1m fee.
EDAW identified a range of “aggressive projects”, with costs to be split by the
public and private sectors, based on seven planning districts along the waterfront from Arawak Cay to Montagu Bay, each “building upon a unique focal point and character of the area”.
For example, the Heart of Nassau from George to East Streets would serve as “the formal entrance to the capital”, featuring a new Parliament complex.
And the Living Waterfront from Elizabeth Street to the Eastern Parade would support a mixed community of restaurants, shops, condos and cultural attractions.
A private sector priority during the first Christie administration was the creation of a city management authority to better co-ordinate the overall redevelopment. But this, of course, required the government to cede some of its power – so although lawyers voluntarily produced draft legislation to set up such a body a decade ago, it is not surprising that the proposal went nowhere.
In fact, the EDAW master plan was nowhere near being implemented when Christie was voted out of office in 2007. The new administration of Hubert Ingraham was ambivalent about the plan, and spent most of its term working towards the removal of shipping facilities from the downtown area to a new purpose-built port Arawak Cay.
This had been considered one of the holy grails of downtown redevelopment because it freed up a large expanse of waterfront property and reduced traffic congestion in the city. Meanwhile, necessary infrastructure upgrades were undertaken to repair or replace drains, sewers and water lines downtown, and repave the length of Bay Street.
Some new development did take place, beginning with the Elizabeth on Bay Marketplace in 2010. That was followed by Pompey Square, the Bay Street Marina, the John Watling’s Distillery, Antonious Roberts’ Hillside House Studio, the renovation of Jacaranda House, the Graycliff empire on West Hill Street, and Pirate Republic Brewing on Woodes Rogers Wharf.
But there was still no commonly agreed master plan or agenda for the city’s revitalisation – despite all the money that had been spent on studies and reports over the years by both the public and private sectors.
This brings us back to the current Christie administration, which had been expecting to base its legacy on the $3.5 billion Baha Mar resort. It now seems highly unlikely that Baha Mar will ever open under auspicious circumstances, so the latest scuttlebutt is that the government has decided to hitch its fortunes to the Chinese juggernaut.
Yet another master plan for Nassau has been produced – by a former principal of the EDAW group named Todd Hill. This plan was presented to downtown stakeholders in May and reportedly involves the replacement of virtually everything between East Street and the first Paradise Island bridge with marinas, condos, shopping malls, restaurants and performing arts facilities.
“It’s a huge concept,” one stakeholder who attended the meeting told me.
“Like putting Miami’s Brickell Avenue on Bay Street. Billions would be needed, as well as a consortium of developers. Everything would have to be torn down and the new buildings would be ten to 12 storeys high.
“But you won’t find many people who are comfortable with investing a ton of money here right now.”
That leaves the Chinese - who do have a ton of money and who still seem quite comfortable about spending it. But if the government’s vision is to get the Chinese to underwrite downtown redevelopment, then they should be up front about it. For example, the rumour earlier this year is that the Chinese are the secret buyers of Union Wharf on East Bay Street – the former home of Pioneer Shipping.
As another downtown stakeholder told me: “The public has a right to know who the buyer is and what is planned for this property. To be honest, the secrecy surrounding this whole matter raises untold suspicions.”
Hundreds of stakeholders from both the public and private sectors have worked for years helping to stimulate ideas and plan the best options for the city’s future. It is a project that will benefit the entire island and everyone on it, and all the experts agree that doing nothing will lead only to more decline.
But the trademark of this government is secret deals and unanswered questions – a complete lack of transparency and accountability – from BAMSI to BEC to the Harold Road landfill to the British Colonial and more. Opaque government breeds scandals and allows the public interest to be easily manipulated for private gain.
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