The Best is Yet to Come

Grand Turk’s many assets have yet to be utilised.

By Chris Morvan

In recent years the Turks & Caicos has been all about Providenciales, once a barren, sparsely-populated outpost but now a tourist destination of upscale hotels and gourmet restaurants. The island of Grand Turk, the nation’s capital, has been overshadowed by its “showbiz” neighbor, to the extent that there are now fears for its viability. There simply aren’t enough people on the island; there’s not enough money changing hands.

With a sparkling ocean visible at every turn and a rich history seeped into its soul, Grand Turk has many attributes. Unfortunately, with relatively few hotel rooms and weak links to the outside world, the place just doesn’t have the buzz of a successful tourism magnet. If the TCI government moved its center to Provo, that would be one more reduction in employment options and one more step towards a slow death for an ailing economy.

So what can be done to revive the island? Or does it, indeed, need reviving? In early Spring 2013, I talked to a variety of people with a view on the subject, mostly Belongers but also some from elsewhere who have been here for several years and love the place (as I do).

Clyde Holiday, known to everyone as “Crab,” is an entrepreneur whose business interests include a grocery store/butcher, heavy construction equipment and water. Born in Grand Turk 52 years ago and having spent several years living in the US, Crab has a valuable perspective on the TCI. “An international airline would be the beginning of change,” he says, “along with a couple of major hotels. The airlines and hotels would have to work together.” And what about the companies that are already in the country? Might it not be easier to tempt them to Grand Turk than start from scratch with people who don’t know the area? “Beaches (meaning the all-inclusive Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort & Spa currently located on Providenciales) might be interested,” he says.

While Crab’s vision is clear and uncomplicated (although he doesn’t underestimate the potential difficulties) others see a painstaking process ahead. Eustace Been, whose A1 Business purveys office

The sleek, modern JAGS McCartney International Airport in Grand Turk.

equipment plus a variety of other goods including musical instruments and amplification, envisages a gradual slope that has to be climbed, but also sees the potential for local business energy to kick-start the process. “There’s a slow economic increase,” he says, “and the only way it’s going to grow faster is if local business people collaborate and put together a package to build a major hotel. We need to put funds in the bank to support a project to build a facility. But there will be no hotel without foreign investment. We need to interest a reputable chain, such as the Hilton.”

But Mr. Been doesn’t draw the line at Grand Turk — he sees potential for developments on some of the small cays, making them into a collection of year-round attractions. “Places like Gibbs Cay could be inspirational settings for watersports and so on,” he suggests.

When I prompt him on alternatives to tourism, he talks sadly of the fisheries having been “plundered” by boats from outside the Turks & Caicos and of the idea of light industry: assembling parts from China — not manufacturing as such, but producing goods. The problem there, he sees as obvious: “The cost of living is too high here.”

As much as the country has its natural advantages — not least a ready supply of labour, Mr. Been cites his own experience of training staff. Having acquired his technical skills through working for Cable & Wireless for many years, when he founded A1 Business in 1979, with technology moving so quickly, he had to send staff away for training with no guarantee that they would stay with his company beyond a short, agreed term once he had funded their new skills. “You train them and they leave — it’s not profitable to do that. And the cost of running a business has increased dramatically,” he laments.

All the same, he strongly advocates using locally qualified staff rather than bringing people in — a bugbear of small communities all over the world. While to Turks Islanders it might seem like a local problem, it is in fact an issue they share with many countries. If you need a specialist in whatever field, from medicine to construction, and you don’t have one in the local population, you have to find one somewhere. Thus in the UK there are countless doctors and lawyers from the Indian sub-continent. It’s also why thousands of Jamaican workers went to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s: because they needed jobs and London needed people to work on the buses.

For the past decade there has been a very different situation in the UK and elsewhere, with a flood of Eastern Europeans arriving in search of a future because the economic situation was so tough at home. That is not what has happened in the TCI; people haven’t been turning up on spec. However, Turks Islanders are a proud people and it is understandable that they are fearful of having their homeland, with its relatively tiny population of Belongers, over-run by foreigners and turned into something they don’t want it to be.

The state-of-the-art Grand Turk Hospital.

One of the most visible success stories on Grand Turk is the big, warehouse-like supermarket, Cee’s, named after “Mr. Cee,” Carlis Williams. Born in North Caicos, Mr. Williams came here in 1962 and joined the police force. He describes Grand Turk at that time as “a very clean island” and has little time for the notion of “cute” animals roaming the roads. “In those days, the people who had animals used them for business purposes, like donkeys pulling carts delivering tanks of water,” he emphasises.

Mr. Williams says that, after the salt trade finished, “There was no industry. People worked for the government and there were lawyers’ offices and so on. There have been periods of growth and the American bases provided employment,” but it is not an encouraging story. When he decided to leave the police force and go into business, Mr. Williams started in a single room, 12-foot square, selling fishing tackle and sporting goods. He then established a department store in the building that is now occupied by Kishco before taking the bull by the horns and creating an island in the water behind Pond Street, where he built his supermarket. As we stand in front of the building, looking towards the west coast, he tells of an architect’s plans which he once saw, showing a row of shops and restaurants lining the street. No blinkered traditionalist, he speaks of the need for a new Cockburn Town with modern facilities, built adjacent to the old town, as has been done with great success in many other places. “We need to break Grand Turk open,” he says, “build it up as a dive resort, increase the number of hotel rooms and bring people in for the whale-watching. The hotels will have to work hand-in-hand with the airlines. Without the numbers, you can’t do much.”

When I went to see Grand Turk amateur historian Oswaldo Ariza for his views on the subject, he stopped me in my tracks. I was assuming that everybody shared my concerns about the island’s current inertia. But Mr. Ariza’s vision is very different. He would start by rebuilding the walls around people’s properties, repairing the dilapidated cemetery and getting back to basics.

Doesn’t he think the island needs an industry? “We had an industry before,” he says. “Salt. And nobody had any money then, either.” Born in 1933, having a lifelong interest in history and having been able to pick the brains of a grandfather who was born in 1846, Mr. Ariza remembers a time when it didn’t matter if you had no money, because there was no need for it. When people could catch fish and grow or forage for certain foods, find firewood out in the bush and make their own entertainment rather than relying on electronic devices from televisions to computers, a bulging wallet was an irrelevance.

That might sound like the view of a dreamer, but Mr. Ariza has had a productive life and has himself driven progress in these Islands through various businesses. He tells me he constructed the first block-built building in Providenciales and revolutionized entertainment in Grand Turk by bringing in the first juke box, which had crowds flocking to the building in Pond Street where it was located. He even accepts some of the blame for the local advent of the cash and credit culture through his involvement in bringing electricity to the island in the early 1960s. Suddenly people had light in the house at night — but they also suddenly had a bill to pay.

This proud Grand Turk man, who is adamant that this was in truth the place where Christopher Columbus landed first, believes the island could and should make the most of its natural attributes. “You have to work with what you’ve got,” he says, convinced that tourists would pay to come to a place that had turned back the clock.

This leads us, oddly, to the thoughts of Deborah Vieira, perhaps Grand Turk’s best known realtor. “Grand Turk is the last jewel of the Caribbean,” she says. “Lost in time, Bohemian. So many of the other islands have been turned into Miami Beach.” Already well-established in the real estate business in her native Canada, Deborah first came to Grand Turk 10 years ago after her daughters came on a diving holiday “and never went back.” Katya and Tonya had fallen for the place in a big way and were determined to carve out a life here. They bought the Manta House on Duke Street and built it up into the successful business it is now, a collection of bungalows and single suites right opposite the beach. They then bought the little garage across the street and turned it into The Sandbar, now a popular bar serving good quality but unpretentious food.

Deborah visited the girls often and eventually decided to make the move herself. Since she arrived she has seen the property market thrive and struggle, from what she calls the “pre-cruise-center frenzy” of 2004–2006, when houses were going like hot cakes at astronomical prices, through the bleak days of 2008, with the double blow of the worldwide economic downturn and Hurricane Ike, to the current situation where, although Deborah thinks prices have leveled out, a house for which the owners were once asking $1 million can now be had for $285,000. In her opinion, what the place needs are two things: condos and water. “There are no condominiums here at all, while Provo is full of them,” she points out, while the often severe water shortages are hardly a selling point to potential buyers who understandably want to be able to take a shower when they feel like it.

One rather eerie sign of the times is the short-lived tourist attraction, Conch World, a hypnotically laid-out group of small pink buildings, opened in 2009 and already abandoned. It lurks at the end of a white, stony, unmade road in the southeast corner of the island, like a potential film set waiting for a spooky script to make use of its desolation.

More sinister, though, is the tendency for new developments to stall and be abandoned after investors have handed over large sums of money. Evidence of this can be seen all over Grand Turk, where concrete shells of what in some cases would clearly be imposing buildings sit forlornly, gathering dust. Word travels increasingly fast within the international community, and when investors have lost money through the unreliability of the system in an untried location, they won’t be slow to warn others of the dangers.

There is always talk of new ventures here, two recent ones being the addition of hotel rooms at White Sands, where a casino that opened last summer was, at the time of writing, “closed for renovation until further notice,” and a marina development at North Creek.

One of the first completed cottages in Sandpiper Court, Lucayan Shores development.

One venture that is moving along is Lucayan Shores, a seaside community of beach cottages on the northwestern tip of Grand Turk. The project is spearheaded by longtime Grand Turk aficionados Martin and Donna Seim along with Edwin Dickenson and his Olympic Construction Company. This project has been a long-standing dream that Mr. Dickenson has now been able to make a reality. Four homes are available in the first phase of development, and another six homes are in the planning stages. Sandpiper Court includes two and three bedroom cottages with underground utilities and deluxe appliances. To deal with the water shortage issue on Grand Turk, the developers have wisely added a back up cistern with a capacity of 8,000 to 10,000 gallons, along with pumps, filters and pressure tanks. Another well-thought-out, environmentally beneficial move is to include waste water treatment plants in every home.

With visions of Hurricane Ike’s 2008 devastation of Grand Turk still fresh, the cottages include impact-resistant/certified windows, doors and Old Caribbean-style shutters. Roof systems have the roof sheeting covered with an impermeable rubber roof. This sealed roof is then covered with the maintenance free metal roof.

Sweeping ocean views enhance all the living areas and the master bedrooms. Oceanfront porches provide shade and will cool the house even in the hottest midday sun. A huge effort has been invested in the landscaping surrounding these homes. Plants have been carefully selected to combine variety, color, flowers, and drama, while being chosen for hardiness and adaptability to the local climate.

Meanwhile, the Grand Turk Cruise Centre continues to provide work for the locals and a friendly landfall for passengers, many of whom don’t bother to set foot outside its Disney-like facade to discover the real Grand Turk. It also serves a significant purpose in giving residents with cabin fever the opportunity to go and look at some different faces as they browse the tourist shops and jewellery outlets along with hundreds of perspiring Americans.

The new Cockburn Town cruise center awaits tenants and visitors.

The construction of a much-smaller cruise centre building across the street from the TCI Tourist Board office in Cockburn Town, was designed to bring those reluctant passengers into the heartland to the benefit of all concerned. Unfortunately, this has not been followed by immediate action as regards finding tenants for the shops and restaurant. But, hey, Carnival, the owners of both sites, have been associated with Grand Turk for a while, so maybe they are operating on “island time” too.

What will the future bring? Nobody knows, but all who love Grand Turk must do what they can to help it along.

Author Chris Morvan lived on Grand Turk for two years with his wife Thiby. They are now established in Tobago, where Chris has a regular Sunday column in Newsday. His novel, The One That Goes The Other Way, is now available through Amazon, either in print or as a Kindle book.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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