Kim Swan, Opposition Leader and Member of Parliament for St. George’s West
As a resident and elected representative for St. George’s, I am extremely concerned the Old Town is being seriously hurt by Government policies and decisions.
I watch with alarm as businesses close and residents lose their jobs. And I am disturbed by the evaporation of street life that is vital to any healthy community.
My concerns are shared by fellow St. Georgians but also by Bermudians from all walks of life who worry that Bermuda’s original settlement – the place where our history as a people began – is being driven into a period of decline.
St. George’s has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs across 400 years, and there are a host of reasons for them – from wars and depressions, to trade booms and embargoes, to the inflow of tourists, whether by ship or by plane.
Today, it is clear the Old Town is being hurt by the policies and decisions of the Progressive Labour Party Government.
Let’s look at the following list to understand why I say that:
The Government’s deliberate reduction in cruise ship visits. These tore the bottom out of the St. George’s economy, which had been developed by the Bermuda Government over decades as a cruise ship hub. The sudden reduction is directly responsible for business closures, job losses and less revenue to the Corporation of St. George’s. The cutbacks in ship visits took hold in 2009. In that year, some 17 businesses closed, with more happening already in this New Year. As we said in our Throne Speech Reply last November: “St. George’s has become a commercial ghost town.” Everybody can see it, everybody can feel it; everybody senses the Old Town is being pushed to the brink.
Public concern about the disappearance of St. George’s-dedicated cruise ships forced the Government to go out and get one for 2010. But then, after signing a contract to bring it here, we learned the vessel is too big to get through Town Cut. Instead, the ship is to anchor at Five Fathom Hole each visit with her passengers ferried into the Old Town. This is a planning and logistical calamity from safety, seasickness and ease of mobility points of view. It should tell everyone that this Government is not paying attention, that it is downright incompetent and disconnected when managing the interests of St. George’s.
The cancellation of the traditional New Year’s Eve party in the Town Square is very telling. Yes, the Corporation of St. George’s was concerned it did not have enough money to put on the show, but let’s understand that is only because its revenues were depleted by Government-induced business declines. The party should have been held in the Old Town not Hamilton, regardless of how successful that event was. It was one more indication this Government does not work for St. George’s. It could have easily stepped forward to make it happen.
The decision to cancel the fast ferry from St. George’s to Hamilton is another indication the Government does not go out of its way to support the Old Town. The reason for the decision was that there weren’t enough passengers. That may be, but sometimes public services have to be maintained for reasons beyond the need for operational revenue, particularly if the aims are to encourage people to change their commuter habits and to better connect tourists to the island. The Government needed greater commitment to marketing the value of the fast ferry, much as it has done for the residents of Rockaway. The cancellation of the service is one more sign of Government indifference to St. George’s.
The final item in my list is the Government plan to develop a mega-yacht facility at Dockyard. This is just one more indication the Government is not going to bat for St. George. The Old Town is the first port of entry to Bermuda, boasting a beautiful harbor, plenty of space alongside and the infrastructural base to host mega yachts. If one accepts the Government argument that St. George’s is no longer suited for the vessels of the cruise industry – and I don’t – then it strikes me as logical that the focus of a caring government would be on filling the void by developing the mega-yacht facility. That’s not happening and people need to ask why.
Is the rundown of St. George’s deliberate? It’s hard not to say no. Is there a better future for the Old Town than the one being undermined by this Government? Yes.
My colleagues in the United Bermuda believe we can reverse the slide, but first we need a government that actually wants to help the Town realize its full potential, which is considerable. Unlike the PLP Government, we don’t want to destroy the Corporation of St. George’s.
We believe locally based government is essential for maintaining the special qualities of the Old Town. But the Corporation is being bled dry by the cumulative effect of Government policies and decisions that do not have the interests of St. George’s at heart.
To help restore its operational viability, we would use the fuel tax to ensure the Corporation and its partners have sufficient income to balance their budgets and provide for capital improvements.
We would facilitate the development of income-producing yacht business and create an endowment for the St. George’s Foundation to support the continuing development of the Old Town as a World Heritage Site.
The key is to think of St. George’s as a destination – Destination St. George’s – where government’s efforts are dedicated to building a healthy, attractive and viable community for residents and visitors alike.
That means first caring about the future of the town, understanding its needs and then using community-wide resources to fulfill them.
That’s how we’d do it.