• Realtor ‘shocked’ by ‘shabby’ downtown Nassau
• But hopeful of 50% real estate sales increase
• Urges Bahamas to ‘play our cards correctly’
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A prominent realtor yesterday voiced optimism that real estate sales could increase by 50 percent this year as he urged Bahamians to “polish what we have” before the tourism market rebounds.
George Damianos, Damianos Sotheby’s International Realty’s chief executive, told Tribune Business he had been “shocked” by how “shabby” Bay Street and downtown Nassau appeared when he drove through the area over the weekend on his way to hold viewings at Paradise Island’s Ocean Club Estates.
Warning that The Bahamas cannot afford to let the city, one of its major tourist destinations, “deteriorate” any further, Mr Damianos urged the government, landlords and private businesses to “seize the moment” and give downtown Nassau “a good polish” ahead of tourism’s revival.
“I did have the opportunity to go downtown over the weekend on the way to do some showings at the Ocean Club, and because of that I had to drive through the city a couple of times in the last three days,” he told this newspaper.
“I was totally shocked at how shabby it was. Bahamians should take the opportunity to polish up the town, the environment and the streets we travel. It could use a good polish. We should think about that for the tourism rebound, seize the moment and not let things deteriorate further, for all of a sudden the tourists will be back.
“I’d use this opportunity to polish this place, do a little shining and polish up. The government could use the time to do this as it is not something that is very capital intensive this type of work, cleaning and polishing. It’s so cheaply done. It’s not like building a road, constructing a bridge. It’s polishing up what we have.”
Mr Damianos explained that he was calling for a series of fix-ups and improvements to enhance downtown Nassau’s ambience and appearance. Bay Street and the city have been almost a ‘ghost town’ for the past 10 months due to the COVID-19 related shutdown of the cruise industry, upon which the vast majority of its businesses depend for virtually all their trade.
The absence of cruise ship passengers and business employees has likely contributed to the seeming further “deterioration”, but the government has recently touted $1bn in investments that it hopes can spark a downtown Nassau renaissance.
These include the $200m The Pointe project, soon to be completed adjacent to the British Colonial Hilton, as well as the $250m cruise port upgrade and $318m new US embassy. The Central Bank’s new Royal Victoria Gardens headquarters, and Supreme Court building on the site of the old Post Office building on East Hill Street.
Meanwhile, looking ahead to the real estate market’s 2021 prospects compared to last year’s COVID-hit period, Mr Damianos said: “The outlook, I feel, is a lot better especially in the first few weeks of the year. We’re busy. I’m very optimistic that we will come back. I don’t know if we will reach 2019 or 2018 levels, but we’re definitely going to see a better year than last year.
“There’s activity in the market. People are looking. People are flying in, which is particularly encouraging. It’s only speculative but I’m hoping to see a 50 percent improvement in sales volumes over last year.
“There’s a good possibility we can capitalise on this; we have a lot going for us in The Bahamas. If we play our cards right we have a great opportunity to capitalise on it. I’m optimistic about that. I think it could happen.”
When asked to explain what he meant, Mr Damianos said that besides The Bahamas’ traditional advantages of US proximity, warm climate and favourable tax structure, it also presently has a relatively low number of COVID-19 infections.
He added that this was reflected by the fact that many persons who flew into Lyford Cay for Christmas are “in no hurry to go back”, with many planning to remain until March. “I think that’s a sign of a good place to be,” Mr Damianos said.
He echoed suggestions by other realtors, such as John Christie, that many high net worth Americans - nervous about the prospect of increased taxes under the incoming Biden administration - were likely to move to “diversify their portfolio” via foreign real estate investments.
“I think The Bahamas could be well-suited, and we need to recognise it and take advantage of it,” Mr Damianos said. “I think the Government should be cognisant of it, and be attentive to foreign investment and second home owners.”
He acknowledged, though, that the new US requirement for returning citizens to present a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of travel could represent an obstacle and “we’ll see how that affects investor travel”. While it was more problematic for UK and European clients to travel to The Bahamas, due to their countries’ travel restrictions, some were still coming on charters.
Mario Carey, the Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate MCR Group Bahamas principal, yesterday reflected Mr Damianos’ estimates by disclosing that “showings might have increased by 50 percent in the high-end market” compared to last year’s COVID-19 hit months.
“Pre-COVID we were humming, we were on a roll,” he said, adding that it might take time for the real estate market to approach those heights once again. While the international market was rebounding, Mr Carey said the domestic side was facing “tricky” headwinds due to the loss of jobs and incomes, and banks once again being reluctant to lend.