By Malcolm Strachan
INTRIGUED by the prime minister’s announcement of some of the high-level details of the government’s programme to revitalise the historic Over-the-Hill area, the nation is eager to know more. With a hodge-podge of feelings among the populace - ranging from excitement to cynicism - Minnis did manage to catch headlines by unveiling one of his most touted initiatives on his way to becoming prime minister. However, despite the public’s hunger for more information, the prime minister and his team are encouraging us to wait, as he promises the main course will be much more satisfying than the appetizer.
Nonetheless, citizens of this country are asking many questions. And rightfully so. In typical scenarios where areas require redevelopment, many of the residents are forced out as gentrification becomes a natural course when a particular area is ripe for change. Certainly, the Over-the-Hill community constitutes as one such environment - having been transformed throughout its rich cultural history into neighbourhoods which are incredibly mired in crime and poverty.
As many of us complain about our first-world issues, the comforts we are afforded allow us to too easily forget the plight of our brothers and sisters whose slumber is constantly interrupted by the sound of gunshots blasting and mothers wailing over the loss of slain children. While we, on occasion, take to Facebook to complain about a power outage or low water pressure, many of our brothers and sisters Over-the-Hill have to live in homes that have no electricity and, or running water.
Many homes, which are terribly lacking in structural integrity, house families with parents who have not worked in years. Moreover, with no financial means to afford school fees, children have to attend public schools where teachers are underpaid and unappreciated, resources are scarce, and they are, in many instances, at war with other children who experience a similar pain.
Although a few are able to flourish in the government school system, a large majority – young men in particular – do not graduate with a diploma. With dwindling prospects of finding a well-paying job, you can also tack on a tarnished criminal record for something as simple as a couple of grammes of marijuana to serve as the fatal blow to a bright future.
Can you imagine what it must be like to wake up every day and face those kind of prospects? To feel as if there is no way out is pervasive throughout these communities. I shudder at the thought.
The system has failed them. People have lost pride in what generations before them built with their bare hands and, tragically, successive governments sat idly by – unless this time is different. But that remains to be seen.
The prime minister seems to be committed to his promise of revitalizing Over-the-Hill, but we wonder if his approach is going to be comprehensive.
Some of the details shared in the announcement were free wi-fi areas, the creation of a food market for native products in the area, the construction of a multi-purpose community centre that offers childcare, senior care and an all-age counselling centre. Additionally, they noted they would like to create an auto-mechanic cluster that would eliminate roadside mechanics in residential areas and to build a sporting complex where various sports can be played.
We trust that when the government presents its white paper, we would be able to dive into more of the “meat and potatoes” of this programme. As we look forward to fleshing it out, we hope we will be able to see a clear strategy that is reflective of what the area needs and a comprehensive approach to executing the government’s goal.
One of the early deficits with the Minnis Administration has been its lack of a clear connection between the various ministries’ plans and how they amalgamate into one overarching vision for the country. Too often, the populace is left wondering if there is a broader construct that is guiding what each ministry is doing. If we were to try, perhaps we can make some connections of our own, but we would prefer to be directed through the process as to understand what the government is doing.
If we are to be honest with ourselves and consider the social and cultural damage that has taken place over decades of Over-the-Hill becoming an afterthought – we should quickly agree the community is going to need a lot more than wi-fi and recreational activities. We can be certain the members of that community’s greater concerns are if they are going to be able to feed themselves today. Are they going to be able to find work tomorrow? Will their child be the next to increase the murder rate? The ability to surf the internet for free will not move the needle.
These citizens simply require more by way of opportunity, economic empowerment and safer environments, among other things.
This is not to knock the government’s plan, as some of what was mentioned would definitely add value to the members of the community. However, we would like to see along with Dr Nicola Virgil-Rolle, representatives from the National Security, Education, Social Services, Works and Environment ministries.
As thoughtful as the prime minister’s plans may be, if the government’s efforts aren’t comprehensive and cohesive, with various ministries working hand-in-hand, the challenges may be insurmountable. Obviously, that is the last thing we want, as we all should support this and want it to be successful.
While the prime minister’s team could not give details on hard cost or a timeline for this initiative, they did say the government has allocated $25m over five years for the project. This raises some concern because that number seems far too low when considering all the moving parts if the programme is done the right way and is the product of a few ministries working together. Apart from initial setup costs - maintenance, security and insurance - all can cause the government’s expenses to dwarf what they’ve allocated for this undertaking.
Certainly, we would suggest further consideration in that regard if we are to witness a rejuvenation of Over-the-Hill’s bygone era.
Additionally, if we consider the electorate’s penchant to elect one-term governments, when both sides meet to debate the Nassau Over-the-Hill Rejuvenation Bill at the start of the next fiscal year, it would be most productive if fair criticisms are given by the Opposition and there is an openness to balanced objection by the government. Mudslinging and politicking will only serve to diminish the importance of what we hope the prime minister is trying to achieve – making lives better for the people in the inner city communities.
With that in mind, there has to be a bipartisan approach to ensure the long-term benefits of this plan can be achieved regardless of who is in government.
Indubitably, fear of displacement and being priced out of these areas may increase as a result of the government’s investment and the tax incentives that land owners can potentially take advantage of. But without a clear understanding of the various protections that will be included in the bill, we can only speculate. Indeed, we can be assured the public will not be quiet if the self-proclaimed “people’s government” were to allow the people of the community to become displaced.
There will most likely be competing interests in this regard – the government, the residents and the people who own the land. That being said, it will be essential for all factions to be active participants in any form of public consultation made available. Constituents of Bain and Grants Town should be becoming well-versed in all of the various implications of this plan so they can ensure they are holding their local MP Travis Robinson accountable. This will be a tall order for the young politician who has to earn his bones among his colleagues in government, but also represent the best interests of his constituents.
While we acknowledge the government’s need to be accountable and transparent, we must also recognise there is a great need for citizens to be responsible and exhibit a sense of pride. Certainly, we can do a better job of taking care of our country.
For instance, many of us have traversed the island and see that pollution is a huge problem. Especially driving through the inner city, the environmental conditions are not only indicative of the government’s failings to preserve history, but also the people that live there. Rather than waiting on the government to fix the issues, the members of these communities have to have the intrinsic sense of pride that creates a desire to make their community better.
The good book teaches us that “faith without works is dead”. Likewise, regardless of how much we cry shame on the government for not coming to our rescue, it is no excuse for us not being prepared to rescue ourselves.
For these communities that have such a rich and vibrant history, it is also their responsibility to protect it and ensure its preservation for future generations.When the opportunity arises for the public’s voice to be heard on this, we expect there to be fiery debate among civic society, political factions, but most importantly – we hope to see members of the community well-informed and representing themselves.