Who Should Run Clifton Heritage National Park?
•Simon is a young Bahamian with things on his mind who wishes to remain anonymous. His column ‘Front Porch’ is published every Tuesday in the Nassau Guardian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The debate over the best funding and administrative mechanisms for the Clifton Heritage National Park is not primarily about this national treasure. More broadly, the debate concerns the development and sustainability of heritage sites and institutions across our archipelago.
Clifton is a park of both archaeological and environmental significance, with the potential to become a major centre for historical and other educational programmes, as well as a place for recreation and heritage tourism.
While Clifton has some of the features of parks administered by the Bahamas National Trust (BNT) that is not its essential or exclusive feature, any more than Fort Charlotte and its environs is simply a “stroll in the park”. There is a history resident in these ruins and built heritage sites.
The protection of flora and fauna is important, but it should not be mindlessly merged with the urgent need for the greater protection of the historic memory and built treasures of the human civilizations that have called The Bahamas home.
A clue to Clifton’s identity and mission can be derived from the fact that the word heritage is in its official title. If we do not get right the essential differences between heritage parks and nature parks, all sorts of half-baked, cavalier and unworkable schemes are likely to be proposed.
In a commentary and letter to the editor published in The Tribune, Richard Coulson proposes that Clifton be merged with the BNT. His proposal is poorly thought through and unsatisfying, lacking in breadth and deeper analysis of the challenges facing all heritage sites and national parks, of how other jurisdictions manage and finance their heritage sites, and of the plans for the park, some of which Dr. Jacinta Higgs outlined in a letter to the editor yesterday.
Mr. Coulson attempted to interview Dr. Higgs, and the Authority has pledged to augment its efforts to inform the public about initiatives in train. Still, Dr. Higgs has noted that she would gladly have spoken to him at a later time.
Mr. Coulson’s comments would have been considerably more informed had he waited to speak with Dr. Higgs or one of her designates. By his own admission, he based various comments on cursory interviews with junior staff.
Preserving and protecting built heritage sites are no “stroll in the park”, requiring new ways of thinking, especially with regards to the sustainability of our national heritage programmes. Front Porch has commented often on these issues, with specific ideas for the funding and development of sites such as Clifton, the object of Mr. Coulson’s deep concern.
That concern is shared by many others and deserves an “open debate” as well as open minds. As a part of this debate Front Porch offered three commentaries on these and related heritage matters. A column on July 1st last year “proposed the establishment of The Bahamas National Endowment, a private-public mechanism to help fund various heritage initiatives.”
Those mindsets that simplistically categorize Clifton as essentially an environmental park lack a deeper historical consciousness and imagination, demonstrating an ignorance of the act governing Clifton. If Mr. Coulson has read that act and still written what he has, he is clearly of the aforementioned mindset. If he did not read the legislation — which one can easily obtain — prior to writing, his commentary is ill-informed and shoddy.
If one carries the idea of merging Clifton with the BNT to its illogical conclusion, one should also merge all of the forts, ruins and various other heritage sites with the trust. One wonders whether Mr. Coulson researched the operational, funding and other mechanisms various jurisdictions utilize to run their environmental parks and their heritage parks and sites.
If he has, he might have reported that many countries have purposefully and often wisely separated how the aforementioned parks are governed and financed. Had he mentioned some of these jurisdictions from Canada to the UK to Australia, his commentary would not have been so lopsided and lacking in breadth and depth.
The work of running heritage and environmental parks do overlap in some circumstances and jurisdictions. But that is not the only or necessarily the best model, depending on national and local circumstances. BNT is not the panacea for Clifton’s development challenges as Mr. Coulson appears to think.
While the Trust has great expertise in environmental issues, other national institutions have considerably more experience with built heritage, heritage education and archaeological research.
Relatedly, Clifton benefits from the wisdom of the BNT in terms of environmental issues, while gaining from the heritage wisdom of the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation, both of which have an ex-officio member on Clifton’s board.
While Clifton has its growing pains, some of which are exacerbated by the current financial downturn, it has and continues to put in place the physical, fiscal and administrative infrastructure needed to develop what Mr. Coulson described as a “lovely and dramatic piece of property” [not being] “successfully exploited”.
Mr. Coulson writes of the “direct burden” of repaying the costs associated with the purchase and initial capital works at Clifton. That language, though a specific economic term, often comes with intellectual baggage and various connotations. Clifton’s “direct burden” is one that the Bahamian people overwhelmingly desired and supported.
What is often considered a burden by some is deemed a sacred trust by others. The soul of a nation is not to be measured mostly in economic terms. It must be cast in terms of broader values which ennoble the human spirit, not just economic man.
Still, in previous Senate presentations and a letter yesterday, Dr. Higgs has spoken about the Clifton Heritage Authority’s fundraising and revenue generation including the utilization of entrance and user fees, and the development of Clifton as a premiere heritage tourism site in collaboration of the Ministry of Tourism.
Though Mr. Coulson was unable to interview Dr. Higgs, at minimum he should have consulted the public record and provided readers with those of her public statements which address some of his concerns. He had a “direct burden” to so do. Further, Mr. Coulson seems to think he has some privileged insight into the Prime Minister’s thinking:
“Now, with Government expenditures stretched to the limit in the face of growing deficits, hard-headed Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham may decide that the worthy but non-essential park imposes drains on the Treasury that the state simply cannot afford.”
Rather than being so presumptuous as to what is in the Prime Minister’s heart and mind, one might consult his speeches, including one to an African Diaspora Heritage Trail Conference held in 2007, in which he pledged his support to developing many of the sites on this trail, such as Clifton, as both a civic and economic necessity.
Mr. Ingraham delivered on that promise in the 2009-10 national budget, an easily available public document Mr. Coulson should have consulted before his skewed and fanciful attempt at channelling Mr. Ingraham’s thoughts.
He would have found there a subvention of $700,000 provided by the “hard-headed” Minister of Finance for the operational expenses of Clifton, “with Government expenditures stretched to the limit in the face of growing deficits”.
But since Mr. Coulson has raised the issue of sustainability, he might have acknowledged that the BNT also has significant funding challenges, despite its fundraising and revenue-earning efforts, receiving in its words, “substantial funding from government”. The perennial issue of financial sustainability serves as the backdrop to the Trust’s 2008-13 strategic plan:
“A fundamental component [is] the recognition that programmatic goals are dependent on institutional soundness. Developing and successfully implementing strategies to build financial resources and our membership base, for example, are as equally important as work in national parks … ”
Fifty years after its founding the Trust does not have a sufficient endowment or revenue generation to finance various ongoing operational costs. In line with his prior increases to assist the BNT with its recurrent expenses, in 2007 Mr. Ingraham, “mindful of the increased number of parks” his administration created in 2002, “increased the subvention to the Trust to $1 million dollars annually”.
In 2008, Mr. Ingraham continued that support while also providing “an additional $250,000 to increase the number of wardens to increase effective management of our national parks”.
Now, despite the Trust’s challenges, we are cavalierly advised that Clifton and the BNT should be merged. Alternatively, and like the BNT, Clifton deserves considerably more time to create a funding mix of some government subvention, various revenue-earning mechanisms and fundraising efforts.
Heritage and environmental parks will always receive some state revenue. Does Mr. Coulson oppose such state support, a staple of most countries? Are such funds a burden the state should not endure? This is the fundamental debate we should have before all sorts of mergers and acquisitions are proposed, absent various facts, more in-depth research and study.