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The winter of discontent beckons for east end town

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Business in the town of St. George is facing a punishing bottom line for the second year in a row, amid growing concern for the old town’s future.

While Hamilton appears to be on the upswing, the east end could suffer another winter of discontent. Even before that though, there is limited optimism for this summer. Many are concerned that there may be a huge change in who remains in business next year.

Davison’s of Bermuda shut its eight stores last year. They let staff go and paid redundancies. They have reopened stores in Hamilton and St. George and have gone from 30 full and part-time staff, to five.

General manager Laura Pitt told The Royal Gazette: “This is the year we thought we would bounce back, or at least have something. How long can we keep going? I don’t know.

“Tourism-related businesses spent all their money upfront on inventory for example – that’s in January and February of 2020. So, nobody has had any cash. They were expecting to start making money when things picked up in April.

“So that means everyone is sitting on a huge amount of inventory. But what you need is cashflow to pay your rent and other expenses. It’s a problem, not just for retailers. It’s often the little things that add up.

“To run a credit card, for example, you need wi-fi. They wouldn’t let us out of our contract, even though it was clear that there were no tourists and the island was shut down. No business, but still had to pay the wi-fi. You can’t believe they are telling you that, as you’ve been hit by a global pandemic. No internet because we cannot use it. But you still had to pay. That’s another $200 a month.”

Quiet on weekdays: The Town of St George (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Milos Damjanovic from the Wharf Restaurant and Bar agrees there are many issues impacting St. George’s business.

“There still are very few tourists,” he said. “St. Regis really tries to promote local restaurants – even on their own webpage.

“But staffing a business, we are between a rock and hard place. Business is OK Friday through Sunday, but we are very quiet from Monday to Thursday, so it is extremely hard to organise a staff schedule and keep people in full employment.”

St. Georges Paradise Gift Shop owner Terry Roberts says: “You’ve got to be a little crazy to be in retail these days. The Saturday with no real cruise ship business, we had no tender service and therefore no visitors. It put us down 70 per cent.

“When we first heard of a cruise ship, we were told it would be in port. Later, it was very disappointing to hear it was going to be at Murray’s Anchorage. We figured we could get by with the tender. But then, no ship at all this past week really hurt.

The town’s experience over the years has proven that nothing could be better than getting ships directly in port.

In an era of mega ships, retailers and restaurateurs believe the narrow passageway at Town Cut must finally be widened. But they feel powerless when it comes to cruise ship decisions.

Mr Roberts was emphatic: “I am 100% for opening the Town Cut. It has to be widened.

“There were always environmental concerns. But the former “Bio” station (BIOS) Director Dr Tony Knapp, was of the opinion – he told me so directly – that there would be no major (ecological) problem from widening the cut.

“For the survival of the town, you desperately need to put a cruise ship alongside the dock. Ordnance Island or Penno’s Wharf – or both for some wishful thinking.”

Dennie O’Connor tries to remain optimistic. He has to.

“This has been the most challenging time I have ever faced as an entrepreneur,” he says. “I strive to find the positives to keep me going.”

The owner of both The White Horse Pub and Tobacco Bay, he has continued with renovation and reinvigoration, live entertainment and culinary creativity.

But he is the first to concede that he is fortunate to be in a position to do so when many others are still hurting financially.

He has 37 Bermudians (part-time / full-time) working between both locations. He cites the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation as a saving grace with financial assistance, and he says the support of the Corporation of St. George’s has continued.

But when it comes to cruise ships and the Town Cut?

“No one wants to hear it, but I am sorry to say there are many families suffering since the cruise ships became bigger and stopped coming into the town.

“This (the widening of the Cut) will have to happen at some point for the town to survive. The only question is, do we make this decision soon, and allow income to flow into Bermudian hands and allow them to grow generational wealth?

“Or do we continue to wait and suffer and lose out on millions of dollars for our community? I am completely for protecting our island, but I am more so for saving our families, history and culture. We have technology now that can protect against the concerns that come with widening the cut.”

Some years ago, the government organised smaller cruise vessels, specifically to service both Hamilton and St. George. But even as there is some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, east enders are just confused about what they can expect to get.

Mr O’Connor says: “Unfortunately, the cruise ships this year have been smoke and mirrors for the St. George restaurants, as the guests can only move in “bubbles” with prearranged bus and walking tours.

“Government is doing what it can as fast as it can, so I am not here pointing fingers. However we need more flexible solutions to this complex problem.”

St. Georgians were happy to hear the town was one of the ports for the Viking Orion; then, disappointed to hear that it would be at Murray’s Anchorage with tender service; further disappointed that the last tender back to the ship was about 6pm; and now they hear, the answer is busing in passengers from other ports.

Dennie O'Connor (Photograph supplied)

Corporation of St. George town administrator Courtney Trott said: “If you’re in the tourism-related field, it’s been two years now that you haven’t had visitors.”

“I’m sure it’s also hurting the government’s bottom line, because there are no head taxes or any other income, fees associated with tourism.”

He told us: “After a week of no tenders from the cruise ship, I’d have to wait a little longer to determine the true effect on business.

“But we (the Corporation) had no say in the cruise ship tendering. That would be the ship’s agent and Government.”

A lack of information is also a problem for St. Georgians, because businesses look to government for information. They anticipate, and spend money, based on information and market intelligence.

A check of the Marine and ports website on Thursday for example, in error still had the Viking Orion schedule at Murray’s Anchorage with a tender service to St. George listed for Friday and Saturday.

“What upsets me,” says Mr Roberts, “is that the (floor) depth of the Town Cut has risen over time because of silt and sediment. But we had those dredger ships, and they actually sat off Town Cut for a few days, waiting for the weather to change before heading back to the states.

“All we needed to do at that point was at least fix that problem with the Town Cut. My understanding is that its dredging could have solved the problem of some of these boats that can’t come in and it would have put this ship (Viking Orion) in St. George’s Harbour – which is larger and deeper than Hamilton.”

Wahoo Restaurant co-owner Alfred Konrad noted: “We were looking forward to the ship – arranging the local entertainers to play on Water Street. Then, we learn it’s just Murray’s Anchorage. But the final tenders go back to the ship 6 or 6.30pm. That’s no good for the restaurant evening trade.

“But we said OK fine, we will make it work. And then we find out the ship is skipping St. George’s altogether. That’s very disappointing.”

St. George’s business owners seem to agree that better transportation is needed – including a dependable ferry service, although without enough Bermuda cruise calls so far this year, that may be difficult for Marine and Ports to justify.

The lack of east end taxis used to be blamed on the late air arrivals, with the demand to service arriving passengers at the airport. But those late night flights are no more and the taxi service is still limited.

And with decreased business in trade that depends on gratuities, there are also employment challenges.

Mr. Damjanovic said the moratorium on work permits makes it difficult. There is a lack of local employees to stay on the job.

He said: “We are working with young people because we cannot get older Bermudians to commit to the job.

“We have advertised positions on several occasions in The Royal Gazette and on the Bermuda Job Board. We have scheduled so many interviews and many don’t arrive. But some actually do, and get the job. But on their first day, again many just don’t show up. During the slow period through the week, we can get by, but on the weekend – the busy time – we cannot do that. It creates an unnecessary hardship for scheduling.”

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Published July 23, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated July 24, 2021 at 8:06 am)

The winter of discontent beckons for east end town

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