Strolling around George Town at 7 o’clock in the evening can be a solitary affair. The sidewalks are abandoned, most of the parking spaces are empty and the only sound is the waves splashing against the harbour wall and the roar of the trucks on their way to and from the cargo port. You don’t quite see tumbleweed rolling down the street, but the Cayman Islands’ capital is far from the bustling hive of activity it is in the daytime.
As former George Town MLA and a staunch advocate for re-energising and revitalising the town centre Lucille Seymour says: “George Town is dying.”
This may seem far-fetched to anyone who experiences the arrival of thousands of cruise ship tourists on week days. They fill the streets, spilling over the pavements, as they explore the historic little town, visit the duty-free stores and jewellery shops to look for bargains and souvenirs and sip on frozen margaritas in the bars and restaurants in the downtown area.
But, their very presence also makes local residents and stay-over tourists avoid George Town when cruise ships are in port because the town becomes so crowded and traffic moves at a snail’s pace. Weekdays, when the ships usually dock, also mean that those who work in town or have business there have snapped up the in-demand parking spaces.
Plans to revamp George Town have been doing the rounds for years. Blueprints have been drawn up, committees have been formed, great ideas have been proposed and architects’ impressions have been drafted.
A National Tourism Management plan for 2009-2013, drawn up by consultants from London-based The Tourism Company, stated that compounding the over-development problems of George Town faces is the poor quality the town’s urban planning and the management of the cruise passengers. “George Town… should be a vibrant centre of activity and a magnet for visitors and residents but the waterfront has not been capitalised upon and, with a few notable exceptions, the quality of development is ordinary,” the report stated.
The consultants criticised George Town’s “few public spaces or pedestrian areas to help generate evening activity”, “poor hard and soft landscaping in key areas, intrusive electricity poles, poor maintenance and lack of attention to detail”.
Architect Burns Conolly agrees with much of these findings. He has long held an interest in the reinvigoration of Cayman’s capital – he wrote his Master’s thesis on that very subject in 1985. Back then, he identified the myriad problems that the town was already beginning to face as the financial industry went from strength to strength in Cayman, with George Town as its base.
“The financial industry came here in the 70s, so by 1985, we were 10 years into it. They could not build fast enough. It was crazy here,” Conolly says.
Due to the mass exodus of George Town workers from the town centre every day after work, back to their “dormitory” homes in the outlying districts, or at least, outside downtown George Town, the high property rental prices and a lack of parking spaces, Mr. Conolly says revitalising the town now would be an uphill battle.
“George Town will continue to change more from being commercial to being something else. It will probably remain the hub of government and as the cruise ship location, but businesses will move out of there,” Conolly says.
He says retail businesses like jewellery stores and duty-free shops that appeal to cruise ship passengers, and that can afford the rental prices would also likely remain in George Town, but restaurants, bars and financial sector businesses would move further afield, and are already doing so.
One saving grace for George Town is its waterfront with its stunning sunset view. Conolly believes the waterfront area could be revitalised if the town were “themed”, perhaps with a pirate or Caribbean flavour, to draw in both tourists and residents and make that part of town welcoming and active at night.
“Maybe on Friday nights, Harbour Drive could be closed off and they could hold an evening festival, as they do in some other countries.
Shops could be open until 10pm, there’d be lots of parking alongside offices or businesses that have closed for the evening. In St. Lucia, for example, they shut down the entire town for a Friday night festival. The tourists come down and they love it,” he says.
However, “the idea of revitalising George Town, given the existing parameters is almost impossible”, he says.
A major hitch in any revitalisation of Cayman’s capital is the ongoing uncertainty over the future of the cruise ship port. The Cayman Islands Government has been negotiating with China Harbour Engineering Company to construct a berthing facility for the cruise ships. The government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese company in June last year. China Harbour is the fifth company with which the government has been in talks with to redevelop the port since 2003.
Chamber of Commerce president David Kirkaldy says: “The challenge is that as the indecision carries on as to what’s happening with the dock, business moves in other directions. Businesses don’t have the confidence to reinvest in their capital facilities because the passengers have been declining at such an alarming rate.”
Last year’s cruise passenger arrivals figures for Cayman were just over 1.4 million – the lowest recorded since 2001.
Businessman Noel March also believes the only way George Town can be saved is by the development of a port where cruise ships can berth. “It’s very simple–we need a port. Then, leave the rest to the private sector,” he says. “Once you have a proper facility for people to get on and off, with customs and immigration and whatever minimum facilities you need, the rest will happen.
The private sector will take care of the rest of it. People need to stop relying on government for getting too involved in commerce. Government needs to provide the infrastructure and then get out of the way,” he says.
The uncertainty surrounding the future of the port is proving detrimental to George Town, scaring off investors and new businesses, March says.
“That is causing immense damage to the Island,” he says, adding that if a new port had been construction or was in the process of being built, there would be a much “different vibe and confidence” around.
“In the past we had very successful businesses in town… the first big mistake was the Royal Watler terminal,” he said. “They should have gone straight to berthing. We should have had berthing here a long time ago.”
Once the town becomes a busy, vibrant place for day-time cruise ship tourists, it would also have corresponding facilities to keep the stay-over tourists happy too, March reckons.
“It will eventually come,” he says. “I believe that the zoning is there to be able to do that, where you can have retail and commercial and residential, like they’re doing at Camana Bay. It should have been done in George Town first.”
Once zoning has been redone, property owners would be able to rent ground floor premises to retail businesses that cater to cruise passengers and then renovate upper floors and offer those to businesses that might operate in the evenings.
“In the glory days of George Town, you were hard pressed to find an empty property in George Town and if something did become empty, it was gone in a matter of days. That was in the 80s and 90s and into the 2000s. People were lining up and waiting for a space to open up and become available,” says March.
Kirkaldy agrees that one of the changes necessary to get George Town back on its feet is altering the town’s zoning, so that commercial and retail and hotel premises can operate out of the same building.
“Zoning may need to change. We need to have buildings like the old HuntLaw building, the Landmark building, places like that that where the ‘paper-type’ businesses that were in upper floors, above ‘retail-type’, have drifted to other locations or are smaller in size. What happens to that space? Why not have boutique hotels, studio apartments or something like an artist studio area where people can congregate–these are some of the things that may not be allowed because of certain ways that zoning laws are written,” Kirkaldy said.
He recalls visiting Mérida in the Yucatan in Mexico, where, when the tourist buses leave at the end of the day, the local government and other groups put on small activities that bring the locals to the area.
“A very simple stage would be set up by a couple of guys and a small band would perform and it would be cleared away by 9pm. What you started to realise is that, almost organically, all this other activity was happening and people were coming back in to the centre of the city to partake of some of the cultural events, inexpensively put on, something to keep the vibrancy there. That’s what’s needed here,” he said.
Getting people to want to live in areas packed with daytime tourists should not be too hard, he says, citing popular residential areas off Bourbon Street, the warehouse district of New Orleans and the downtown areas of Savannah and Charlotte. “Where the hordes of visitors are every day is the most desirable place to be because after they’ve gone, you live where they vacation and what a cool thing that is,” he said.
The Chamber of Commerce in recent council meetings has been addressing tackling the problem of a declining George Town. One idea is to create an ad-hoc group or committee of Chamber members and interested merchants in the area to help make George Town a vibrant town outside of business hours and cruise ship days.
Ms Seymour is thinking along the same lines. She is also calling for local members of the George Town community and businesses to work together to remind people that George Town is the “political and cultural capital of the Cayman Islands”.
She wants George Town to be officially designated by law as the business centre of Cayman and by dint of an urban plan, the passing of legislation, the establishment of a cooperative group or a commission and perhaps even the election of a mayor of George Town to get the capital back to its rightful spot as the focal point of the Cayman Islands.
“The devolution of some of government’s responsibility can be brought down to the people–let them be empowered to help run a district,” she says.
She would like to see the history of George Town acknowledged, with the tourists being able to find out about the vanguards who built the town and the heritage of the place. “The tourists walk around and they buy things. We have to sell our history and our heritage. We need to have heritage tourism in George Town.”
Pedrestrianing parts of George Town to make it a more “walkable” area for both tourists and locals, has long been a consideration, along with creating revenue by introducing parking meters, multi-storey car parks or park-and-ride areas. Seymour sees getting people to park a little farther away from their destination and walking as a health benefit, which she thinks people would embrace. “George Town should be a walking city. We have a perfect circle–it’s one mile, from port to port… We must utilise and create small businesses for people who can work within that mile,” she said.
Encouraging small businesses, whether it be restaurants offering food at outdoor stalls, or craftspeople working in a craft market, or stores moving into empty rental spaces that have been reduced in size and divided to make it cheaper for a small retailer to flourish, would also help revitalise the town centre, Seymour believes.
Another architect who has long been involved in drawing up plans and schemes to bring George Town back to life is John Doak. He acknowledges that money is really at the bottom of the delay in turning the capital around. “How is it going to be funded?” he asks.
Traffic’s another issue.
“There has always been concerns that when you dabble with the traffic, it creates a worse situation,” he says. He recalls an earlier attempt to close Harbour Drive and direct traffic to bypass the George Town waterfront as being less than successful.
Back in 2002, when he drew up plans to pedestrianise parts of George Town, there was then, and still remains today, plenty of support for the idea. The popularity and good feedback about the pedestrianised areas of Camana Bay shows that paving areas to make them accessible only to walkers will be embraced by shoppers and people who want to take their kids for a day out in an area where they won’t have to contend with vehicles.
He thinks making parts of George Town pedestrianised zones would be easier to do today than 10 years ago, as back then the cargo port was operating during the daytime and tourists walking in the area had to deal with container trucks coming to and fro. Now most of the vehicular delivery to and from the port is done in the evenings.
Accessibility for disabled people in George Town also continues to make it an unfriendly zone for anyone in a wheelchair, as well as for parents with baby strollers, as the heights of pavements vary and there are few ramps in the area. A revamp of the town would need to address this, Doak says.
Dealing with the issue of cars in George Town is at the forefront of many arguments as to what should be done. As Doak puts it, there is an adage that says the fondest memories people have of a particular place very rarely include an image with cars, so despite Cayman’s love affair with vehicles, reducing the numbers of them in the town centre would be a good first step toward making the town the picturesque, beautiful spot that tourists will want to spend time in and locals will want to visit.