Fifty years ago, the world of the Bahamas passed through Downtown Nassau. It was as though Downtown Nassau was the Downtown for the whole country. Every sloop and mailboat arrived at New Providence through the Downtown, bringing people, produce, fish, conch and animals, and taking back supplies, tools and people. The people of the City of Nassau filled Bay Street, on bicycles, drays, cars and trucks, but most of them on foot. Fishing supplies from the Ironmongery. School supplies from the Stop’n’shop. Dress patterns, buttons and thread from the Melita’s. Xmas cards and toys from City Pharmacy. The Market Range was not only the place to meet family from the Out Island, it was the place to buy and sell fresh fish, conch, meats and produce. It was the place the people of the City went when they wanted to be taken seriously. It was where the Burma Road Riot went. It was where you went to rush or to watch Junkanoo. The people of the City of Nassau followed Market Street to market, and the businesses of the Downtown thrived. It was certainly The City’s Central Business District.
It provided its citizens with historical record. Much of the history of the City was, of course, presented in architecture, federal, ecclesiastical or military. As a Colony, the history of the British was the most in evidence, but it represented the City of that time. Historic Cathedrals marked the edges, with St. Francis Catholic Chutch at the western end and St. Matthews Anglican Church in the east. Christ Church Cathedral defined the city as city. Other historic cathedrals defining the Downtown were the Methodist Cathedral, Trinity, the Presbyterian Cathedral, St. Andrews Kirk and the Baptist Cathedral, Zion. Historic hotels included the British Colonial and the Royal Victoria. Residences like Jacaranda, Cascadilla, Curry House and Mount Fitzwilliams, home of the Governor General, carried the history of Bahamian architecture into the 20th century. The wonderfully historical complex of federal buildings around the Library Green anchored the Downtown historical display.
That same Library Green celebrated Bahamians who fought in the two World Wars, sharing the accomplishments of the City’s people. The sculpture of Don Syler and the turtle shell artistry of the Johnson Brothers, divers who could spot a coin underwater from a fifty foot dive told the world that Bahamians were an exceptional people. We celebrated Sidney Poitier’s Academy Award in what we agreed at the time was the most important spot in the City, Rawson Square.
The special personality of the people of Nassau filled the Downtown. Shops displayed ceramic chickcharnies and decorated plates from Chelsea Pottery, intricate straw work decked the sidewalks of Bay Street as well as the Straw Market, art galleries and a dozen nightclubs showed off the music, dance and exotic culture of the City. Parades by the Boy’s Brigades, the Boy Scouts, the Jumper Church or lodges passed through the Downtown to celebrate a culture of discipline.
And finally, the presence of the center of government, the highest courts in the land and the Central Police Station reinforce the City’s sense of order.
And the people made the Downtown part of their planning. They placed their schools at the edge of the Downtown – Boy Central, later Western Senior and Junior, the Government High School, St. John’s College. Or in some cases in the Downtown – Queen’s College and St. Andrew’s. They located the hospital, insane asylum, Police compound and the graveyards as near to the Downtown as possible.
But today, there is no relationship at all between the Downtown area and the people of the City of Nassau whatever. It no longer provides the City with a center of commerce, or respect for its history, it does not celebrate its accomplishments or present much of its culture. What is left of its federal display is threatened by an extreme lack of concern, and the sense of order is the victim of neglect. In short, this is no longer Nassau’s Downtown.
In recent years, though, Governments have spent millions of dollars on expensive reports promising that by “returning the romance” to the Downtown, or by “bringing people back Downtown to live” the area might be resuscitated. The bad news is that for the area to become the City’s Downtown again is not a matter of cosmetics or population. It is an organic matter. The Downtown would once again have to serve the City in ways it is most likely not prepared to do, either physically or businesswise.
On the other hand, the area excels as a stage from which to tell our story. Its quaint architecture, narrow streets, handsome, black policemen dressed in starched, white tunics with polished brass buttons and its colourful ceremonies in white wigs and multi-coloured costumes still offer a strong branding from which to share our unique Bahamian story.
So, to restate the obvious, the present Downtown is no longer a Downtown, as it does not serve a City. That creates a major opportunity to re-establish the identity of the present Downtown as primary product in our tourism business.
I should point out that this is not unusual. Just about every city built before the turn of the 20th century has found itself in this position. Their original city center no longer supports the commercial and cultural needs of their populace, but has developed value as an historic zone, and is often used for tourism. And those for whom their history made tourism attractive have most often chosen to build a new Downtown elsewhere. New Orleans, San Juan, Havana, Mexico City, Montreal. But the key to the success of those places who have taken advantage of their historic zones is a vision based upon an understanding of the mechanics of the tourism business.
But the conversion of Downtown Nassau to Old Nassau requires more than just a name change. We Bahamians have been experts at changing the name of failed programs. What we need is to step back and ask ourselves what it takes to drive a successful experience business.
The first thing it takes is effective leadership.
To build a tourist destination requires an entrepreneurial mindset, a high tolerance for risk. This is critical. We think of Las Vegas as a place where a gangster went into the desert and bet much of his ill-gotten gains on a dream. A theatre owner risks losing millions of dollars if his show flops, while the coffee shop owner next door has a low risk level, as his product is not particularly volatile. Leadership by the theatre owner is more likely to result in viable attractions-based business environment than leadership by the coffee shop owner. It really is as simple as that. There is no more important requirement in the effort to develop a major destination than entrepreneurial leadership.
The second requirement is a plan. The area has a personality. It has a history. What it does not have is an attitude towards using those elements to create viable attractions. There is presently no incentive to develop attractions in the area. Attractions are the lifeblood of the Destination. So there must be a plan to encourage the developers of attractions, whether by monetary incentives, re-engineered processes, public promotion or the creation of the infrastructure needed to sustain success.
Thirdly, there is a need for education. First, most of the community has no idea what opportunities are available in an effective Tourist Destination. Unless the community understands the economic opportunities derived from creating a successful attraction, we will continue looking for foreign investors who offers only employment. Secondly, perhaps the most important part of the education needed is the education of those people involved in the presentation of the attractions created. If the story of the Bahamas is to be told, the tellers of the story, - actors, musicians, writers, set designers – must be professionals. They must be properly trained. And they must be properly paid. Competition is stiff.
Old Nassau is not the answer to our tourism problem, but it is a start. The business of tourism is the vehicle with which we have driven this country to great heights, and it offers even more opportunities. But we must discard our role as passengers and take the wheel. Anything less is simply a lack of responsibility for our country and the miss-management of our family business.