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Downtown art district plan to put Miami, New York ‘second’

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• Tourism official says live-in resident artists idea eyed

• First stage is murals to beautify derelict properties 

• Admits Nassau city ‘not going to change on a dime’

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The Ministry of Tourism’s plans to transform downtown Nassau via creation of an “art district” will relegate similar spaces in New York and Miami to “second spot”, a senior official pledged yesterday.

Ian Ferguson, the Tourism Development Corporation’s chief, told a webinar held to mark World Tourism Day that reviving the derelict properties east of Rawson Square and East Street could ultimately extend to developing an area where “in-residence” Bahamian artists display and sell their works to tourists and cruise ship passengers as well as a local market.

The first stage of this process, which is linked to the creation of the Tourism Entrepreneurship Centre’s small business incubator, is the “downtown mural project” involving the use of artwork to both overhaul and cover-up the multiple abandoned properties that continue to deteriorate and have resulted in the area becoming a long-standing eyesore.

Describing the Centre as the key element in the ministry’s first phase efforts to revitalise downtown Nassau, Mr Ferguson told the webinar organised by TCL Group: “We say that this is the flagship because it is the provision of an incubator-style storefront for fledgling businesses within the tourism industry. We’re creating entrepreneurial opportunities in the initial phase for about 20 Bahamians to be in that shared space.”

He explained that those entrepreneurs and micro businesses will be focused on providing authentic Bahamian products and experiences in retail, tours and excursions. These will range from visitors being able to design their own straw bags or make jewellery from fish scales to “sip and taste” experiences and tours that showcase the country’s history and culture. “The visitor wants a multiplicity of experiences,” Mr Ferguson added.

However, the Tourism Development Corporation chief conceded that to entice cruise passengers and other tourists east of Rawson Square, the area’s visual appeal is in need of marked improvement and this is where the murals come in with the ministry working alongside cultural ambassador, Jamaal Rolle, and other local artists.

Referring to the Tourism Entrepreneurship Centre as having “given birth” to the murals initiative, Mr Ferguson said: “When we go ahead and start to direct visitor traffic east of Parliament and Rawson [Square], we obviously have to work on the aesthetics; what currently exists in that space.”

Promising that the necessary transformation will be achieved, he added: “We’ve seen some of the renderings. It’s just going to be a different level. The art districts that you’ve seen in New York, Miami, Atlanta and other places are going to come second to what we provide in this space.”

The Bahamas, and downtown Nassau, arguably have a long way to go to match the dedicated art districts possessed by many major US cities. And many observers will likely be sceptical that The Bahamas can achieve such lofty ambitions given that efforts spanning several decades have yet to produce the promised revival of Bay Street and its surrounding areas.

Mr Ferguson, while acknowledging that downtown Nassau’s current condition will not “change on a dime”, revealed that the murals are just the first step in ideas to create a much bigger and longer-lasting art district in the area. “We know this is not going to change on a dime,” he told the webinar. “We know this not going to be the end of all our woes relating to the vexing 30-plus years that the east of downtown Nassau has been, but it’s a start.”

Asked whether the Ministry of Tourism’s plans involve attracting persons to live in downtown Nassau once again, Mr Ferguson replied: “We have identified some possible spots for residential areas on the second and third floors areas of [buildings]. There’s a little small hotel we’ve looked at exploring in that area as well.

“We recently had a conversation around creating a specific art district where artists would live in residence and, while in that space, share their art with cruise ship passengers. These are ongoing conversations, ongoing projects, like the parking dilemma. That’s a large part of the problems downtown.”

However, before pursuing these goals, Mr Ferguson said he was focused on getting the Tourism Entrepreneurship Centre properly established and functioning first, adding that downtown Nassau’s revival must take place in stages.

Describing The Bahamas as “the trend setter in the region” in prior decades, when other Caribbean countries sought to learn from its success, he added that the country “may somehow have dropped the ball on this” by taking more than three decades to bring a Tourism Development Corporation from concept to reality as an entity charged with managing the tourism product and its development.

Revealing that it is currently pursuing some 20 different projects, Mr Ferguson said one involved training Bahamians to become American Lifeguard Association-certified lifeguards. Out of 280 applicants, some 150 were approved to take the training course and some 84 have now become certified.

“Of the 84 we took through, a little over 40 of them are already employed,” he added. “In fact, a number of them are employed with the cruise lines, beach resorts and we’re looking forward to many of them trained in the future being brought on as beach guards.” Mr Ferguson said he wanted to partner with the Public Parks and Beaches Authority to have these persons hired as lifeguards at public beaches.

Calling for tourism industry players to cease “going back to silos and doing they’re own thing” when it came to issues affecting the sector’s overall development, and exit “the vacuum they’re operating in currently”, Mr Ferguson said collaboration was critical.

He reiterated that operators needed to set aside competitive hostilities and “the little petty stuff that we have going on sometimes”, and help make decisions that advance both The Bahamas and its people.