Momentum is gathering for the transformation of the shabby downtown area of Nassau, the biggest city in The Bahamas, into a vibrant residential and retail center integrated with the city’s Cruise Port and a major attraction for the huge Atlantis resort on nearby Paradise Island.
At stake is the long-term future of one of the biggest destinations in the Caribbean. “If Nassau/Paradise Island in The Bahamas was a country by itself, it would be No. 4 [in the Caribbean] in terms of total air arrivals, it would be No. 2 in terms of total visitors, and it’s No. 1 in cruise passengers,” says Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, Minister of Tourism and Aviation for The Bahamas.
The effort to re-develop downtown Nassau into a high-end leisure destination in its own right began in the early 1990s but only really began gaining ground when a new owner spent $90 million on renovating the British Colonial Hotel on the waterfront in the western part of downtown Nassau.
When the British Colonial opened in 1923 on what is locally regarded as the most historic site in Nassau, it immediately became the most upscale resort in the city. However, by the 1990s the British Colonial had fallen on hard times and had become a down-at-heel inn occupying only a small part of its massive original structure.
But after re-opening in the late 1990s as the British Colonial Hilton Nassau, the hotel has regained its former glamor and is now recognized as one of Nassau’s most prestigious addresses, according to the Downtown Nassau Partnership (DNP). This public-private partnership was formed in 2009 to serve as interim manager for the city’s revitalization efforts until a framework is legislated to allow incorporation of the Downtown Improvement District as a self-financing business-improvement district to manage and promote the city of Nassau.
However, little could really be done to revitalize downtown Nassau – and particularly the waterfront area adjacent to the Cruise Port – until the government of The Bahamas took the crucial decision to move the city’s container port and other commercial-shipping activities to Arawak Cay, a couple of miles west at the western opening of Nassau Harbour.
Although the decision has been 20 years in gestation, The Bahamas government has now made it irrevocably and work has now begun on a new commercial-shipping port on Arawak Cay. This will free up 40 acres of waterfront east of the Cruise Port for redevelopment, according to Vaughn Roberts, managing director of the Downtown Nassau Partnership.
Roberts says the DNP’s intention is to redevelop this area into a mixed-use destination featuring residential structures, condominiums, one or more hotels (perhaps including a casino) and a marina, as well as ground-level retail outlets and restaurants on the waterfront.
According to the DNP, specific projects involved in the revitalization of the waterfront area will include an expansion of Woods Rogers Walk as a waterfront pedestrian promenade; construction of a new downtown straw market; and creating various cultural activities to be hosted in the area.
Also key will be revitalization of Bay Street, says Roberts. Bay Street is both the main shopping street in downtown Nassau and a vital road-traffic artery which represents one of only two main roads connecting the heavily built-up eastern part of the island of New Providence with the less-developed western part, where most of the beach resorts on New Providence are located.
Bay Street is currently traffic-choked and shabby in appearance and its retail outlets are now largely “cheap and cheerful” shops – including Bay Street’s well-known Straw Market – and jewelry stores which mainly service cruise-ship tourists, who are often only on shore in Nassau for 12 hours or less.
One important aim for the DNP is to improve the road network in downtown Nassau, alleviating the congestion on Bay Street, according to Roberts. The area round Bay Street will become more pedestrian-friendly – the nearby waterfront is planned to become pedestrian-only – but Bay Street itself almost certainly will not be closed to traffic completely. “Research indicates some vehicular traffic is good for retail,” says Roberts.
Another main aim will be to renovate the buildings in Bay Street and analyze its mix of retail stores. “The idea is to give people an experience,” which will entice them to stay longer within the downtown area on their initial visits and encourage them to return, says Roberts. Every additional day each visitor spends in Nassau, New Providence or Paradise Island brings in hundreds more tourism dollars on average to The Bahamas.
Overall, says on the DNP on its website www.downtownnassau.org, the revitalization of the downtown area “will involve a social and economic transformation of the city of Nassau – balls from Wulff Road to Bay Street, and from Arawak Cay to Potters Cay. It will require a focus on culture and heritage, a physical redevelopment, and a systematic effort to remake the city’s image.”