Many historic buildings lying in ruins are actually gold mines in the rough, remaining untapped because of a lack of foresight and courage to invest in them, the president of the Barbados National Trust Peter Stevens has declared.
Stevens, a conservation and management consultant, said Barbados appears to run counter to world trends in saving historic buildings for the fast-growing heritage tourism industry.
He said: “Many of these structures are in the hands of people that simply don’t have the money to invest or they don’t consider it a good business opportunity because they don’t know that business. So even though they may want to see the property maintained, they are just not interested in it as a business. Getting the money to borrow to invest is also difficult especially when people don’t see the financial sense in the conservation of heritage building.
“Ironically it is one of the most secure financial investments that one can make. It may not be a runaway investment in terms of the speed and percentage of returns, but the heritage area is one of the safest places that one can put money. While it is a strong investment, convincing people of that is quite difficult.”
Stevens cited the birthplace of Barbados’ Father of Independence, Errol Barrow, at Nesfield, St Lucy, which remains a derelict 32 years after his death and vagrants occupy the childhood home of Van Roland Edwards, 53 years after his composition became the music to the National Anthem.
In contrast, Stevens highlighted Jamaica which is reaping dividends from the foresight to preserve Jamaican heritage.
He noted Devon House in Kingston, the 1881 home of Jamaica’s first black millionaire George Siebel, who earned his riches from gold prospecting in Venezuela. In 1965, the Jamaican government saved the 11-acre property from imminent demolition, converting it into a museum. Devon House’s mansion, boutiques, restaurant and world-renowned ice cream parlour hosts thousands of visitors every year.
The attraction is just one of several heritage sites which are major pillars of Jamaica’s cultural and community tourism industry. Trench Town, the hometown of reggae icon Bob Marley was once described as a dangerous ghetto, but is now one of the more popular destinations for Airbnb because its linkages to the legendary singer have been packaged and marketed.
But the heritage conservation expert made it clear that while the Barbados Government has a role to play in this component of heritage tourism, it cannot be the main benefactor.
He said: “We can’t expect Government to be paying for heritage structures all of the time, they can lay the pathway to enabling people to do that, but the money essentially has to come from the private sector and invested in a way that it is not squandered,” he said.
“There are a few projects that Government has to invest in because they are so important that it does not matter whether or not they make money and they are for the national good and national identity.
“However, for the most part, investing in heritage conservation should have a profit return and this is the most effective way to preserve our historical structures.”