(this piece first appeared my regularish column in the The Herald on 9 September 2014)
I was fortunate to, last month, spend a week in Durban. I was one of four thousand five hundred delegates from around the world that attended the 25th World Architecture Congress. It really was a great event with great speakers, great exhibitions and great and inspiring debates in the corridors and coffee bars that make conferences like these worthwhile. Yes, my mind was on the papers and presentations, but maybe, even more than this my mind was on the city of Durban and the International Convention Centre, where this fantastic event was being hosted.
As I was shuttled from the distant airport or as I booked into my beachfront hotel or enjoyed a steak for supper, I was asking myself: “What does Durban offer the conference goer that Port Elizabeth does not?” I was asking myself “What gave the people of Durban the confidence to build the International Convention Centre, where we in Port Elizabeth have failed to build ours?”
Because many of us remember how, before the World Cup came around, Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality was all set to build our own International Convention Centre on our own beachfront. All the studies had been done by the world’s leading thinkers on these matters and showed that there is probably no other investment our city could make that could attract such a significant amount of new visitors to our region as an International Convention Centre. And not just any old visitors, but big spending business people, who, wherever they go around the world, seem to burn money before, during and after the conference on hotel accommodation, restaurant meals shopping and touring. The amount of new jobs, new opportunities, new rates and new taxes that was predicted would have been generated by this project is actually quite staggering.
It is all so sad therefore, that at the precise moment when our city seemed poised to push the big “GO” button on our own very own ICC, that Sepp Blatter announced to the world in 2006 that South Africa would be hosting the Fifa 2010 World Cup. From that day on everyone went crazy. Any plan, any idea, any vision and any project that did not, in some way, support the World Cup was shelved and forgotten. So with the passage of time, people now forget that the plan for our ICC was not shelved because it was a bad idea,it was shelved because the World Cup got in the way.
Back to the streets of Durban and my Hotel on the beachfront. Yes, Durban’s beachfront is nice, but not nearly as nice as Port Elizabeth’s. The Durban beachfront is actually decidedly down market and positively shabby. It seems that the whole “upmarket” part of what was the beachfront has upped and moved off to the North Coast, to Umhlanga, to Belito and to Salt Rock. I don t know the places that well, but I do know that PE’s beachfront still contains its upmarket restaurants, hotels and apartments. It does this gracefully, while still accommodating ordinary people that are unable to spend large amounts of money. PE has cleaner beaches, our sand has a better colour and the skies are crisper. Port Elizabeth has a better beachfront. Fullstop!
In the evenings after the lectures, exhibitions and talks, my wife and I would visit Durban’s Florida Street. It’s a restaurant zone about 10 minutes taxi drive from the ICC. It’s nice, with a good range of restaurants, bars, antique shops and art galleries. To be honest though, our own Stanley Street is better. Stanley Street offers a wider range and has a much better “street vibe” and is distinct by being nestled in a uniquely preserved heritage precinct that is Central and Richmond Hill.
So, I come to ask myself : “What it is that is standing in the way of Port Elizabeth becoming a world class conference destination?” We really do have an offer that can out-compete Durban. We have all the key ingredients to make ourselves into a conference city, that can be better than Durban and, importantly, we have the rare opportunity to locate an ICC on the beachfront. Imagine being able to step out of the conference and see the waves, smell the sea and check out the talent along a public promenade back to your beachfront hotel or your fancy restaurant. Colleagues, our city has it all. All except an International Convention Centre. Yes, I know our friends at the Boardwalk Casino have tried to convince us that what they have built at their new hotel is the same thing. While we must all understand that the casino bosses were well motivated to convince that gaming board that what they were building would save the city from building an ICC, the truth is that their conference venue is nice and it’s better than what they had before, but just does not do the trick. It just does not have the scale required to attract the kind of conferences envisaged by the city prior to 2006.
But all is not gloomy, because we are very fortunate to have in our city many very highly paid and skilled public leaders. They can be found in our Development Corporations, Development Agencies, National Departments, Provincial Departments and Municipal Directorates. (Remember, an ICC is a public investment, requiring taxpayer’s money.) So my challenge to the clever and powerful people of this city is: Which one of these individuals in these powerful institutions will step up to the plate?
This project needs a champion.
Who will it be?