Published On: Tue, Dec 10th, 2019

Businesses in Philipsburg struggle to survive

Cruise ships in Port St. Maarten - 20191128 JH

GREAT BAY — After a slow start of the tourist high season, several stores and restaurants in Philipsburg have trouble paying this month’s rent. Earlier this year Port St. Maarten and the tourism authorities announced that St. Maarten is seeing ‘a cruise boom’ and that the island ‘is leading a Caribbean tourism comeback’. But businesses in town are not seeing the profits they have been hoping for to cover their expenses.

The Christmas lighting project ‘Philipsburg Alive After Five’, an initiative of the Philipsburg Promotional Board (PPB), has been cancelled due to a lack of funds. Last year businesses in town sponsored festive lights in parts of Front Street, the area around the Court House, Cyrus Wathey Square, and the Boardwalk Promenade. The project started December 1st with the objective to motivate residents and tourists to visit downtown Philipsburg and encourage afternoon shopping in stores, and dining in the town’s restaurants.

Cruise tourists on Great Bay beach - 20191128 JH

The former Minister of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport, & Telecommunication TEATT, Stuart Johnson, applauded the initiative by PPB. “Every entity, organization or business with a stake in Philipsburg has a responsibility to contribute to Christmas 2018 – Philipsburg Alive After Five.” Johnson said November last year.

This year TEATT and the Ministry of Public Housing, Environment, Spatial Development and Infrastructure (VROMI) were contacted for sponsoring. “We feel that this is an important event, and that the government should take part in it,” says E. Valentin Davis, president of the PPB. “But our requests were not honored.”

Last Friday, December 6th, Davis met with interim director of Tourism May Ling Chun and her team, who were joined by a presentative of TEATT. “They expressed eagerness for us to do the project at the last moment,” says Davis. He wonders if the sudden willingness to create a Christmas atmosphere in town is for economic or political reasons. “But they do not have the funds. Or they can’t make the funds available to us.”

View cruise ships in port from Great Bay beach - 20191128 JH

There are over 250 businesses located in Philipsburg, of which fifty are restaurants. Davis, host of Sheer restaurant and owner of commercial real estate on Front Street, understands the current situation of business owners. “I have 21 tenants, many of whom are asking me for rent cuts. Shop owners who a decade ago could easily afford to pay 50.000 dollars in rent per year, are now having trouble covering their expenses.”

A tour of retail stores, bars and restaurants, jet ski businesses and beach operators shows that companies are struggling to make ends meet. The owner of a clothing and souvenir shop Downtown – not a tenant of Davis – has had seventy days with zero sales this year. “Only 2017 was worse, but that was the year Irma hit. Then I had around hundred days without sales, mostly after the hurricane. Now it’s different; tourists from the ships simply don’t spend a lot of money in town.” He refuses to lower his prices. “I sell quality goods at a reasonable price. Hotel guests buy a great deal from me, but unfortunately they seldom come to town.”

He has seen Philipsburg change a lot in the last decades, says Davis. “Philipsburg used to be more lucrative in terms of attracting land tourists – I consider St. Maarten residents also land tourists. People that stay or live on the island spend an average of 400 dollars when they come to town to shop and dine, whereas the average cruise tourist doesn’t spend half that amount.” In 2018 the expenditure per cruise passenger was $191.26. Davis continues: “With the extent of our capital’s night-economy being none existent and the day-economy on the decline, the need for giving Philipsburg’s economy attention has never been more urgent than now. We should also consider the more than seven thousand people that live and work in Philipsburg, the parents who bring their children to schools in town and the eight churches with a congregation of two thousand people. Employees, visitors, customers and residents should all feel safe and secure when they are in the capital.”

Tourist in town on Front Street filled with cars - 20191128 JH

The Philipsburg Promotional Board has compiled a ‘Wish List for Philipsburg’. This list consists of 33 points, starting with garbage management – implement an efficient garbage law and major garbage cleanup; making Philipsburg pedestrian-friendly – restrict vehicular parking on sidewalks and beautify alleys – and introducing more valet parking and lightning of areas to enhance the town’s safety and security. “We met with the Minister of Infrastructure quite a few times and had several meetings with the police department,” says Davis. “Eventually we developed good relationships and identified the points on the list. But then there are changes in government and we have to start all over.” He sighs. “It just becomes tiring.”

Behind the scenes the PPB is preparing different projects in cooperation with non-profit organizations. Initiatives like the ‘Adopt an Alley Project, together with SXM Doet, proved successful. “We silently continue working on enhancing and beautifying our capital,” says Davis. “Improvements need to be made before you will see a lot more business coming into town. At present you don’t have that nice environment for people wanting to come back.”

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Photos caption: The photos published with this article were taken Thursday, November 28, 2019.

Relevant links:
Hustled and harassed in Philipsburg
Online discussion regarding this topic on our Facebook page
Editorial: Diversify?
Editorial: Peeling an onion
A lousy day in Downtown Philipsburg

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