When prominent businessman and former President of the Barbados Chamber of Commerce & Industry (BCCI) Eddy Abed recently lamented the state of our capital city Bridgetown, it seemed like we had been collectively watching an ailing patient slowly departing while we wrung our hands and only talked about what could have been done to improve his health but took few steps to achieve a recovery.
Over the past 30 years, we have witnessed this historic city lose its appeal, its commercial and historic significance, while the country moved on to the newest shiny objects in places like Warrens and Welches on the St Michael, St. Thomas borders.
Regrettably, as some citizens have treated their ageing parents and grandparents, the Barbadian public has apparently abandoned their capital and left it to survive primarily on the foot traffic of the few who carry the burden of having to traverse between the two major bus terminals at Princess Alice and Fairchild Street in order to reach their homes or places of work.
Ironically, the steady exodus has been led by Government, as more and more of its offices have been relocated to more spacious and appealing districts and, of course, retail and service providers have followed the state’s lead in hopes of capturing the spending power of those civil servants.
There have been no new housing projects erected in the capital city in years and the quality of those that remain is less than flattering. And even if the investment were to be made by a bold benefactor, residing in Bridgetown unfortunately carries a stigma that makes it unappealing to the average individual or couple looking to make the largest investment in their lifetime.
The Pierhead Project, a massive futuristic plan of the former Barbados Shipping & Trading (BS&T) to build a marina for the rich and famous, the construction of adjoining waterfront condominiums and high-end shopping were to be incorporated. The project would have transformed and revived the City from Bay Street, all the way down to Hinck Street. It would have been a renaissance of sorts for the old trading centre.
The ambitious project never got off the ground despite several promised start dates. BS&T fell in a hostile takeover battle between two Trinidadian corporate giants and the prime real estate is now in the hands of the Massy Group and its future is unknown.
Earlier this year, Bridgetown lost one of its iconic establishments when businesswoman Susan Walcott closed the doors of the Waterfront Café for the final time.
The restaurant and live entertainment jaunt, was one spot in the City that was a key attraction for visitors who wanted to savour authentic Barbadian fare, while enjoying the view of our historic Parliament Buildings and regular city life, street characters and all.
The March 21, 2020 closing of the Waterfront Café was a signal to all who paid attention that things were going desperately wrong in the capital.
A trip to Bridgetown today brings very little excitement save the warm old ladies who sell their fruits and vegetables at Cheapside, and now the Mighty Grynner Highway, on Saturday mornings.
We pay homage to the traditional business owners such as the operators of Woolworth, Abeds, Collins Store, Cave Shepherd and the smaller players who continue the struggle to maintain relevance and keep hundreds of Barbadians employed in Bridgetown despite the mounting odds.
COVID-19 has only added to the struggle of keeping their doors open. With an estimated 40 000 Barbadians out of work as a result of the pandemic, Mr. Abed said the next few months could be make or break for many operators, particularly in the retail sector.
“Almost a million tourists used to get off cruise ships every year, normally, and if we could incentivise them to shop in Bridgetown, we would have a ready-made market.
“The other aspect is that Barbadians have become more affluent and convenience-minded, and they want to shop somewhere where they can pull up, park 25 yards from the store they’re going to, do what they want to do without being hassled, without any garbage or poor lighting, and go home, even at 9 p.m.
“Bridgetown has not done a good job of competing with that. Every survey we’ve done via the BCCI has indicated [Bridgetown] has issues with parking, poor lighting and garbage. Until we really put our arms together and realise this is our capital city and there is an exodus every day at 4:30 p.m. and does not return until 7:30 a.m. the following morning, then this is a conversation we will continue to have,” he said.
In spite of the efforts of the BCCI-led Revitalisation of Bridgetown Initiative, the City remains unattractive and uninspiring for most Barbadians.
We hate to pour cold water on the designation of Bridgetown and its Garrison as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The accolade has done little to boost the City’s fortunes. And neither Government nor the private sector has sought to exploit its potential in any significant way.