Hopes high that St George will survive – and thrive
Businesses have been pleading with Government and the Corporation of St George to help St George, saying they felt “abandoned’, but as Fiona McWhirter found out, there is still a sense of optimism in the Olde Towne.
A handful of tourists chat in the sunshine while they wait for their ride in the Olde Towne.
Their backdrop is an otherwise empty King’s Square, where buildings are being renovated and a sign warns visitors about “wet paint” on historic cannon.
A look along Water Street — mid-morning on a weekday — reveals paving stones spared at this moment of the foot traffic business owners crave.
But it is only March and there is still a global pandemic — so will there be many more people in town this summer to enjoy the fresh paint and facelifts than were there in the past two?
Some people think so.
Ricai Paynter, a skilled labourer, said: “I see it getting a little busier down St George’s with more businesses, especially young entrepreneurs.”
Brianna Lopes works at the Lili Bermuda perfumery and said there was “a huge drop” in footfall through the town since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
She added: “It’s gotten much better but it’s still not enough — we still need more.”
Ms Lopes said: “It’s very quiet, it’s very dead, especially in St George’s.
“It’s normally busy but since Covid and places not being open, it’s so slow.
“Some of the stores aren’t open as much as they used to be. The restaurants, from what I can see, they do OK.”
She added: “Personally, I think it’s going to be a good year … Covid — I guess it’s kind of a normal thing now and people are getting back to normal.
“I feel like travel is not a worry to them any more, they’re ready to come back.”
A worker in another shop highlighted that March was always a relatively quiet month although she thought there were more tourists in recent days.
But some premises in the town looked completely vacant.
Others were closed but appeared still to be in use, a few with notices indicating how customers could contact the business by phone.
A shop worker who lives near by recalled stores that called the town home in the past, such as Trimingham’s and AS Cooper’s, both now gone.
She said: “When I came, St George was thriving.
“We had the cruise ships here, we had the yachts, it was just a nice atmosphere down here.”
The woman added: “The other day we had a lot of people down here.
“I said, summer’s coming.”
Shannon Outerbridge said that the town was starting to offer more to island residents instead of products or services targeted mostly at overseas visitors.
He explained: “The town’s in transition.
“A lot of businesses are closing and a lot of new ones are opening up, which is needed because a lot of it used to be souvenir shops for tourists. There wasn’t a lot of diversity. Everybody was selling the same thing.”
He added: “Now we’ve got different people coming in with different ideas, different products geared towards locals and tourists alike.”
Mr Outerbridge, who lives in the parish and works in St George, said a natural beauty business was expected to open on the square and he highlighted Ital Beverages, which stocks products in supermarkets throughout Bermuda but will soon have premises in the Olde Towne.
He explained: “What you’re seeing is a trend of a lot of businesses opening up with a lot of young people.
“They are opening a store front factory.”
Jamal Woodley, the owner of Ital Beverages, said that the business started in 2020.
He hopes to start selling juices and smoothies next month from a York Street unit that was earlier a café.
Mr Woodley makes drinks at his home and distributes to shops such as Lindo’s and Harrington Hundreds.
But the company is moving as the business expands.
Mr Woodley said: “This is a lovely location right here.
“It’s well known and it will bring something different to St George.”
He added that the town, a Unesco World Heritage Site, has “always been nice for the locals”.
Mr Woodley added: “St George has always come together. Everybody knows everybody, but with the tourists, I feel like it’s died down.
“It’s always seasonal too.”
The St George’s Stakeholder group, made up of more than 20 businesses, said last month that the town centre needed major improvements before the start of the summer.
Since then, Lawrence Scott, the transport minister, said that there will be funding in the Budget for the Orange Route ferry in 2022-23 to help cruise ship passengers to get from Dockyard to St George’s.
He added that the service provided “crucial connectivity” to the town, “allowing economic benefits for businesses” as well as opportunities for visitors to enjoy the attractions, restaurants and shops.
The Corporation of St George earlier defended its record on promotion of the town and said it was working on a town plan and had appointed a steering committee that included a member of the stakeholder group.
George Dowling III, the Mayor of St George, said: “Five years ago the Town of St George was near the tail end of a steady decline, with plans of new beginnings, then Covid happened and things got worse.
“We are now in a renaissance period for the town.
“The stakeholders of the town, the residents, businesses and the Corporation of St George are starting to come alive and we are all cautiously optimistic.
“Indeed there are some vacant buildings but that is the current Covid trend island-wide.
“That being said, in the past two years quite a few of St George’s buildings have changed ownership and other vacant buildings have changed tenancy status as evidenced by the amount of renovation or construction sites in the town.”
Mr Dowling added: “Looking forward, the CSG has formed a town plan steering committee comprising of key stakeholders in the town and representation from both the business and residential sectors to bring closure to this project.
“The CSG has put together the right team to succeed.
“The plan will highlight key benchmarks at years one, five, ten and beyond and is meant to be a living document to evolve as the needs of the town evolve.
“In five years’ time, I believe our town will be back to its thriving ways as experienced in the 1990s and prior with two top-notch hotels, a marina and cruise ships coming to St George.
“All of us — CSG, businesses and residents — must all come together to ensure the success of the town.”
Mr Dowling said: “As our country opens up more and more from Covid restrictions, I believe we will see more and more events within the town.
“The CSG will focus on delivering its five signature events, but we look forward to partner events like the Marine Expo and the National Trust Walkabout.
“We also look forward to supporting other events in the town and invite interested parties to forward their proposals to the Corporation of St George offices.”
Andrea Phillips, who works in her son’s clothes shop, Visions In Paradise, said last week that she thought foot traffic through the town had increased.
She added: “I think what they need to do is have more of the seasonal events down here versus just in Hamilton or just in Dockyard.
“They need to even the playing field to bring the retail back down here.”
She said: “They’re going to start a little fashion show at the end of every month down here on the road by Wahoo.
“That should help … that should bring some sales.”
Anne Brown, who has lived in the area since 2003, said that the town’s decline started before the coronavirus pandemic.
She said: “The shops started closing and generally the whole place felt run down.”
But Ms Brown added that she thought things were headed in the right direction.
She said: “Having seen a few more tourists this last week or two then, yes … but who knows?”
The Olde Towne’s star may have dimmed, but it had lost none of its charm for its latest visitors.
Manfred Skalnik, from Austria, arrived on the Eye of the Wind tall ship from Sint Maarten in the Caribbean.
He said: “It’s different, the architecture is interesting for us Europeans, especially.
“We were wondering about the roof construction.”
Francesco Cincotta was on his first visit to the island from Italy.
He said: “It’s a lovely place, St George, really cosy. Everyone is really friendly. It’s beautiful.”
Mr Cincotta added: “It’s much nicer than Hamilton because it’s smaller and you feel more cosy.
“The architecture is simply stunning.”