IRG Real Estate Ltd. broker Jeremy Hurst moved to Cayman in 1988, and around that time government was developing a transportation plan that included the revitalization of George Town Central.
“Everyone thought, ‘Great,’” Hurst said.
But some 30 years later, Hurst and other George Town Central stakeholders are still waiting for the revitalization to come to fruition, despite seeing several iterations of the plan.
Government has made baby-steps toward effecting its revitalization plan, including hiring architect Colin Lumsden to be the George Town manager and spearhead the project.
What the rejuvenation initiative really needs, though, is a “spark” to ignite the progress, said Hurst, who thinks that spark could come in the form of government’s cruise pier project.
Hurst is joined by a chorus of private- and public sector stakeholders who think that the cruise pier project is just what George Town Central needs to be ushered into a new era.
However, others are more skeptical about the potential benefits the cruise pier could have on George Town, and some think it will be a downright negative.
Worldwide, there have been examples of cruise pier projects being used as a launching pad to revitalize their surrounding urban areas.
According to The URBACT Tribune – a magazine about challenges facing the development of European cities – Portugal used a cruise pier project to help boost business in the city of Matosinhos.
“The choice of linking cruise tourism to regeneration goals starting from the creation of a new and attractive cruise terminal was made by many European (as well as non European) cities over the last few years,” the magazine states, citing Matosinhos, Portugal as a success story.
Hurst thinks George Town Central will also be a success story if and when government builds a new pier here.
The real estate broker envisions the revitalization of George Town Central as a several-step process.
First, the increased quantity and quality of cruise passengers – the cruise pier will attract bigger ships, which typically carry wealthier passengers – will boost spending in the area and encourage more cafes, restaurants, and other businesses to open there, he said.
The added amenities will not only attract cruisers, but also residents, he said. With more bars and restaurants in the area, George Town Central could even become a night-life attraction, he said. If that happens, the area would be an attractive spot to develop studio apartments for young professionals, according to Hurst.
Government envisions a similar process as the real estate broker.
“As commercial activity increases it creates more employment, and we can expect that more jobs will become available due to the piers, in addition to the jobs that will arise during their construction. There will also be more entrepreneurial opportunities for enterprising Caymanians to start businesses based on the larger customer base,” stated Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell. “So many more Caymanians work either directly for the industry or in cruise tourism-related jobs and I am hopeful that Caymanians who reside in the George Town Central area in particular will take advantage of the increased opportunities for employment or establishing business.”
Dawn McLean-Brady, the chair of the Cayman Islands Small Business Association, also thinks the pier project will be a boon for George Town businesses – both during the cruise hours and the nighttime.
McLean-Brady said that when the cruise pier initially opens, it will attract thousands of residents there for opening ceremonies and other celebrations. After that, it will be up to government and businesses to hold weekly nighttime events and carry that momentum forward, she said.
She said the pier will benefit vendors by allowing passengers to come ashore even during days of bad weather, which has hampered business in the past. For instance, stormy seas in January and February 2016 cost Cayman an estimated $5 million in revenue when some 54,000 passengers were prevented from coming ashore.
“When there’s bad weather, people are looking at each other like, ‘Oh my god,’” said the chair of the Small Business Association. “They still need to pay their power bills and pensions and health insurance and rent – and there [the ships] are up by Spotts.”
McLean-Brady said the Small Business Association – about 85 percent of its members are located in George Town – is in support of the pier project and the redevelopment of George Town Central, but that it would like more of a say in how they will be carried out.
“We just want to cut through the red tape and get it done,” she said of the revitalization plan. “Stop talking and let’s show how we’re going to benefit small businesses.”
Both McLean-Brady and Hurst think the public sector has a role to play in the revitalization of George Town, mostly by making it more pedestrian-friendly by possibly closing off streets during peak hours, having more public transportation, or encouraging the development of more parking spaces.
Hurst also said government may have to loosen planning laws to allow for more vertical and residential development. Government may also have to revisit laws that require premises to have parking onsite or within a certain distance, he said.
Making George Town Central pedestrian-friendly is indeed a key aspect of the overall pier project, said Minister Kirkconnell.
“Developing the piers to give passengers a seamless walk-on, walk-off experience means that we also have to look at ways for extending that level of convenience through to the land side along Harbour Drive,” he stated. “Pedestrianizing that area will eliminate congestion caused by traffic and pedestrians competing for the right of way. This will create a much safer, more enjoyable pedestrian experience that is not limited to cruise passengers, but to all who work, shop or reside in the downtown area.”
By and large, however, Hurst said he thinks the private sector will fuel the development once the pier is built.
But not everyone is on board with the idea that the pier park will be a boon to the downtown area.
Katrina Jurn, a spokesperson for the campaign to hold a referendum on the cruise pier plan, said government has still yet to divulge crucial information about how the project will impact its surrounding area.
“We remain very concerned about the lack of information from the Government on their master plan for George Town, the infrastructure requirements of the project, total costs, payment terms and conditions, and details of commitments made by the cruise lines in the financing agreement,” she stated.
Jurn also pointed to downsides of the project, such as the business that it will disrupt during the pier’s construction period.
“Three years of construction will stop all water-related and shore-based activities in the GT Harbour area including snorkeling, scuba diving, glass bottom boat and submarine trips, which currently generate approximately $10 million per annum and employ many Caymanians,” she stated. “This period would likely see the closure of many existing small businesses and loss of many jobs. This would result in a total of $30 million actual loss of revenue for the country over and tourism sector during that period, keeping in mind that cruise tourism currently generates approximately $154 million annually.”
Moreover, the project could also have a negative impact on the island to the tune of some $10 million per year via the destruction of reefs, which serve as shoreline protection from storms, she said, citing an environmental impact assessment on the project.
The National Trust also expressed concerns that government is not taking into account climate change when considering the pier development.
“The Trust would emphasize that there is no evidence that plans for the port have been made with climate change adaptation in mind. Our region is expected to endure stronger storms and higher storm surge. Sea level rise is already occurring and is predicted to continue rising by one to four feet, translating to a shoreline recession no less than 33 feet by 2030 according figures published by the Cayman Islands government,” National Trust Director Nadia Hardie stated. “The National Trust would again request that Cabinet follow recommendations made by the National Conservation Council and other organizations responsible for safeguarding our environment.”
Opposition Leader Ezzard Miller expressed similar environmental concerns.
“Government has said nothing about how they plan to mitigate the impact of the dredging and complex construction activities for the proposed cruise ship port on the disembarkation, processing and return of passengers to ships, as well as passengers’ ease of access to landside recreational arrangements,” Mr. Miller stated on Friday. “How that management aspect that could have markedly adverse impacts on the future of the industry will be addressed has to be a concern for the industry and the population as a whole and should be addressed.”
The Department of Environment, for its part, said that further environmental impact studies need to be conducted because the project design has changed since the last EIA was conducted.
“We continue to believe the government should give very careful consideration to the impacts of such as significant development upon the remaining George Town harbor reefs, the marine life those reefs support, and the buildings and other structures in the general environs of the harbor, as well as due consideration to the effects arising from these impacts on tourism enterprises operating across Grand Cayman,” the department states.