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Nassau’s renaissance

Nassau’s renaissance

Downtown development partnership close to realizing next stage in overhaul of capital’s infrastructure

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
July 13, 2011
July 13, 2011
Steve Cotterill

Plans for the revitalization of downtown Nassau have been on the table for quite a number years, but, with an election looming and a recognized public/private entity at the helm, the vision for a pedestrian-friendly, congestion-free capital could truly be nearing reality.

The thoroughfare of downtown Nassau is Bay Street–a two-lane corridor linking west to east. In its heyday, the main street was a thriving, bustling centre of exclusive retail outlets, cafes and eateries. It was the cultural and commercial hub for the local community and a favoured haunt of visiting dignitaries and Hollywood glitterati. However, recent years have seen central Nassau succumb to the same blights that plague many modern urban districts: traffic congestion, aging infrastructure, and air and noise pollution. For a city that welcomes millions of cruise ship visitors every year, these are very undesirable characteristics.

“As you may be aware, great attention is being placed on the enhancement of the environment of Nassau,” said Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham at the inaugural visit last year of one of the world’s largest cruise ships. “The upgrade of our city’s infrastructure is being undertaken with a view to improving its aesthetics, as well as increasing our offerings to residents and visitors alike.”

Central to this vision is the Downtown Nassau Partnership (DNP)–a public/private entity formed in 2009 and tasked with the progressive redevelopment of the city of Nassau.

“Over the last ten years, a lot of thought and work has gone into plans to redevelop and preserve downtown,” says Vaughn Roberts, former managing director at DNP. “Nassau is the front room of The Bahamas and, if we are inviting people into our front room, then it should be the showroom for the entire nation.”

Careful planning
In collaboration with the government and a board of directors that includes some of the most prominent members of the local business community, the DNP has sketched out a detailed master plan for the development of the downtown area. The mandate for the initiative takes in a number of key principles, namely: to preserve the historic heritage of the city; create a seamless interface between the cruise port and the city; create a world-class marina facility; enhance the waterfront experience; create spaces for Bahamian art and culture; and, make downtown once again the heart of the community.

“This plan is intended to provide for beautification and rebuilding, as well as the introduction of entertainment,” says Prime Minister Ingraham. “In short, we hope to make the downtown Nassau experience such that visitors would be able to return home and tell their friends and relatives that ‘It’s better in The Bahamas.’”

The plans take into account every aspect of the area’s facelift, from small details, such as increased greenery, artistic wall murals, which have already appeared all over the city, and street furniture, to multi-million-dollar projects, such as new park areas and activity spaces, pedestrianization of side streets and large tracts of the wharf area, and brand new retail and residential facilities. It also tackles congestion, proposing to relocate taxi ranks and the downtown bus depot to new, less obstructive locations. The master plan also calls for metered, parallel parking all along Bay Street and widening the pavements.

“The pedestrian experience in downtown Nassau at the moment is very challenging,” says Vaughn. “We need to look at alternative forms of public transport, such as having water taxis shuttling along the seafront, so that congestion is relieved in the downtown area.”

Significant investment
The government has already made significant investment over the last couple of years, as local groups and the large cruise ship companies keep up the pressure for change. The dredging of the harbour to accommodate Royal Caribbean’s cruise superliners Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas has opened the Nassau port to some of the world’s largest vessels. Coupled with a new $12-million, 37,000 sq ft straw market, and the renovation of the supreme court and parliamentary buildings, as well as infrastructure improvements, the government has invested in excess of $100 million into downtown projects over the last two years.

Trade Mission

“These projects set downtown on a new course, bringing back vibrant community life to historic Nassau,” comments Minister of the Environment Earl Deveaux. “The expectation is that all parties would seek a variety of innovative ways to involve people in the progress of the revitalization of the downtown core.”

The single most important initiative by the government in recent years, according to Roberts at DNP, was to negotiate the relocation of the container port from downtown Nassau to Arawak Cay, west of the capital, thus freeing 40 acres of prime waterfront property to the east of the city for redevelopment. Proposals have already been drawn up for the waterfront site, of which 20 per cent is owned by the government, with the majority of the remainder being owned by only two families. Some of the properties at the eastern end of the wharf were destroyed by fire on Valentine’s Day this year and Roberts suggests that some of the owners are looking to sell, for the right price.

“This represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to reclaim the city for the community and bring people back into downtown,” says Roberts. “We have to look at bringing condominiums, boutique hotels, retail and restaurants to that area, and develop a world-class marina. The government can recoup investment through increased business licence fees and cruise visitor tax, as the city attracts more commercial ventures and more visitors.”

Step by step
At the beginning of this year, the government reviewed a package of materials outlining the DNPs immediate strategy and some of the key decisions it requires of the government. The ruling party gave preliminary approval to several projects, including: the pedestrianization of two main side thoroughfares downtown (Charlotte and Marlborough streets); the creation of a public “green area” linking the wharf to Bay Street on the site of the old straw market; the creation of designated paid parking areas; and overall improvements to Bay Street, such as paving and street furniture.

Although the government has in principle approved these projects, it has not indicated how they will be funded. The responsibility for that lies with the DNP. “The government has essentially agreed to oversee utility development and the repaving of Bay Street, which is already going ahead, while we need to come up with the funds for a lot of the aesthetic work,” says Roberts.

With this in mind, the DNP kicked off a six-month funding campaign in May to drum up $5 million in capital. “We have $1 million in place from [Atlantis Paradise Island owner] Kerzner International and that is a good start,” says the former DNP chief. “We have identified a list of wealthy shareholders and I am optimistic we can reach our goal and see serious improvements before the next election [in 2012]. These are visually powerful improvements and will make a striking difference to the city, particularly in the core West Bay Street area and along the seafront. But what is important is that we make the message resonate with both the economic and political leaders that the revitalization of our capital is not about politics; it is about what the city means for us as a country; what it means for us as a people.”

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