George Town political candidates, regardless of affiliation, largely agree about problems afflicting the district, particularly its downtown. Consensus, however, also suggests that remedies are elusive, relying on hard-to-find investments from both public and private sectors.
Broad agreement surrounds revitalisation of the district, but depends on boosting the residential population, contingent on available and/or improved housing, encouraged by better recreational and commercial opportunities, better designs for traffic movement and parking, creation of pedestrian pathways, lighting and landscaping, and even educational opportunities.
Still, limited funding is likely to impede any sustained pursuit of the ideas, which, frankly, have been under discussion for years.
One funding idea, however, grows out of the still-hot topic of cruise docking. If the millions of dollars to be spent on two, perhaps four, berths, might somehow generalise to embrace local businesses, wide-ranging changes might be realised.
A pier would also address district unemployment, an issue for at least eight of the 21 district candidates – six from the UDP, six from the PPM and nine independents.
The UDP’s Mike Adam called unemployment a “national issue”, but suggested a series of weekend festivals on Harbour Road might provide both a sense of community and a chance for small-business owners to showcase their products, bringing “back a pride to George Town and allow for employment opportunities”.
Walling Whittaker, standing with Mr. Adam, said the port must benefit not only George Town merchants, but those already living in the district.
“The people of George Town must receive some immediate and long-term benefits,” he said, vowing to “fight for employment and business opportunities from the cruise port, airport expansion and any other major project that is started in George Town”.
Independent Jacqueline Haynes says she would combat unemployment by “up-skilling new entrants to the workforce” and asking government to enforce traditional Caymanian-first job restrictions.
While that is likely to have a limited effect, Progressive Kenneth Bryant says that restoring confidence in honest and transparent government will bring business, investment and employment “for Caymanian citizens” back to George Town and island-wide, although he offers few details about how that might be accomplished.
Independent Roy McTaggart thinks central government bureaucracy is the culprit preventing downtown renewal and expansion, and that cruise berthing might be the answer: “We must stimulate the economy and attract businesses by reducing bureaucracy such that the business climate is conducive to growth in the private sector.”
A new port, he said, would attract tourism and provide long-term employment and business opportunities, without which “we will never have a sustainable tax base with which to fund our growing infrastructure.”
While Mr. Bryant’s prescription for honest government yielding increased investment revenue may be vague, it at least does not rely on indeterminate proposals for multi-year port construction. Nor is it the only idea for raising funds to address the district’s rejuvenation.
Progressive candidate and long-serving legislator Kurt Tibbetts says a port alone will not remedy the ills that have long beset the area: “We must refurbish, replant, revitalise and rehabilitate the area.”
To achieve that,” he says, “we will designate central George Town a special development area with fiscal and tax concessions that meet the development goals for the area.”
Almost as an aside, PPM Bodden Town candidate (and 2005-2009 MLA) Osbourne Bodden makes a cogent proposal for financing improvements in his district, something that might well generalise to George Town.
He would tap the Cayman Islands Development Bank and the Department of Commerce and Investment for loans and advice, while suggests moving certain government functions out of George Town, clearing space for better-used properties.
The move, he said, would “create jobs for our people, encouraging small shopping centres and community services along with tourist-related activities and services”.
Independent Frank McField, 2000-20005 UDP minister of Housing, would create a small-business cooperative to refinance local entrepreneurs.
“I will reduce the cost of food by the establishment of a wholesale food cooperative, which will import less-expensive, fresher and healthier foods directly from our neighbours in Central America to be sold to small distributors to supply restaurants and small shops in our district,” he said.
Mr. McField would also rely on a second initiative, targeting high rates of youth unemployment.
“I will not forget about the culturally interested and talented youngsters who will benefit from the re-establishment of a recording studio and promotional aides,” he said.
Perennial Independent Derrington “Bo” Miller, while short on financing proposals, agrees with Progressive Lucille Seymour that a town manager, a sort of mayor of George Town, should oversee local redevelopment.
“Establish the district councils by election and employ a full-time town manager and have council meetings open to the public,” the native North Sider says. “Commence an inventory and assessment of the neglected areas of the town with a view to creating a plan to enhance the areas through private sector and government initiatives.”
Some of those initiatives might prove self-financing, but most focus on building community.
“Increase and enhance public areas that foster a sense of community and enjoyment: Secure the old Tower Building and Pageant Beach sites and develop as a town park and public beach where our artists, musicians, crafts persons, etc. can enhance our visitors’ experience and create self-employment,” Mr. Miller says.
Meanwhile, Ms Seymour, also a 2005-2009 PPM legislator, says the political capital is “decaying” and “shabby”, needing the attention of a dedicated official.
“We should elect a mayor or town manager to beautify and maintain the city. It should be accorded special ordinance status”, she says. “We need to make it more people friendly and safe, with green and pleasant breathing spaces.”
Independent Stefan Baraud, one-time head of the Port Authority, has seen enough of downtown George Town to understand that a simple legislative change might make a big difference.
A modest “amendment to the Planning Law for downtown, specifically re-zoning from office/retail to residential/retail,” he says, could yield a “mixed-use opportunity” allowing “vacant buildings to be converted to apartments for downtown living.
“It is important to relax parking requirements. There needs to be an increase in the ongoing activities to maintain locals coming downtown,” Mr. Baraud says.
A zoning amendment might help to clear the path for the broader ideas of Progressive Marco Archer.
He would transform the commercial centre “into a vibrant pedestrian district where commercial and retail businesses will thrive day and night as visitors conduct business and participate in the different activities, he says.
Without detailing PPM plans, Mr. Archer says the party “will provide incentives to encourage new businesses and reduce the cost of doing business in and around central George Town,” sounding public opinion to reroute traffic, redesign streets and improve landscaping, creating a mixed-use commercial and residential community.
Winston Conolly, another independent, agrees that the capital should be a hub for business, culture and education “as well as our economy, a. place that allows our business owners their staffs and the wider community to thrive.
“More assistance needs to be given to small bus
inesses,” he said, if short on sources of that assistance. “Both public and private sector must work together to stimulate investment and generate opportunities for employment and training.”
Matthew Leslie, Independent, wants more after-hours business opportunities downtown, boosting support for “ownership and beautification of homes and neighbourhoods”.
In turn, he said, that might encourage a variety of improvements: after-school programmes for district-based organizations, small-business expansion and a craft market. District representatives would meet quarterly to identify local issues.
Finally, a range of candidates want to boost neighbourhood educational options, believing families will take advantage of the opportunity.
“I will work to establish small learning centres for children in communities in need,” says the UDP’s Rayal Bodden. “The objective is to develop small learning centres with small libraries, computer access and learning tools where children can go in the evening and which is in their neighbourhood, to study, interact with other children and where parents can assist children with learning processes.”
If Mr. Bodden appears optimistic, his UDP affiliate Jonathan Piercy thinks the situation is a little darker.
“One of the major issues facing the George Town district is the lack of activities for our youth, causing delinquency and a rise in crime. We need to address the family unit, and partner with non-government organisations and churches to provide programmes and after-school care/activities for our youth,” he says.
Agreeing with Mr. Bodden about after-school and educational opportunities, Independents Sharon Roulstone and Jude Scott propose vocational, athletic, literacy and science programmes for the district, which, Ms Roulstone says, is home to nearly 50 per cent of Cayman’s youth.
”We have the greater burden, therefore, as a district, to ensure we protect and promote our children’s well-being,” she says.
Finally, UDP candidate Ellio Solomon wants to combine a range of ideas to recreate the district, although, like most others, funding sources remain largely unnamed. He cites “public-private partnerships”, a long-standing UDP theme and the original concept for port construction, as one possibility.
“Immediate action must be taken in a partnership between government and the private sector to revitalise the district, from a proper port facility, creative business options, to parks, actions that will bring the city back to life,” he says.
New retail outlets, restaurants, expanded parking and pedestrian areas, he says, will make George Town “a place for wholesome family entertainment and activities.”
The capital should not be a “ghost town after 5pm,” Mr. Solomon says, but a vital national resource.