Main Street in Aruba

Oranjested Aruba Streetscape
The Caribbean island of Aruba, which lies 15 miles off the cost of Venezuela and has a population of approximately 100,000, faces many challenges due to the rapid growth of tourism and the toll it has taken on the island's infrastructure and local businesses.

Renobacion Urbano is an on-site, cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary planning assistance and public engagement project in Aruba, which is led by the American Planning Association (APA) as part of its international outreach work. After landing in Oranjestad, Aruba, and taking a tour of the island, I was not sure how our approach to economic development in Ohio's historic commercial districts would translate to the Dutch Caribbean. After hearing Prime Minister Mike Eman speak on Monday morning, however, it made perfect sense. 

According to Wikipedia, Aruba is the southernmost island in the Caribbean, about 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Originally colonized by Spain, Aruba has been under Dutch administration since 1636. Residents speak Papiamento, a blend of Dutch, Spanish, English, and French. The population of Aruba is around 100,000 with the capital city, Oranjestad, claiming 33,000 residents.

Prime Minister Eman, who was elected in October 2009, introduced us to the challenges that the island is facing. Responding to the rapid growth of tourism and its wear and tear on infrastructure, the Ministry is focused on creating a new vision for the island that strengthens the local economy and improves quality of life. One of the Ministry's major priorities is to revitalize the original commercial district in Oranjestad, also known as "Caya G. F. Betico Croes." In the past few decades, the downtown has been severely damaged by resort development on the edges of the island. It lacks locally owned businesses, and too much money escapes the island through multi-national hotel companies. Many Main Street facades have been covered up with inappropriate and unattractive materials, and the district is a sad reflection of its former self. I was surprised, but relieved, to learn that downtown Oranjestad is faced with the same challenges plaguing cities and towns across Ohio.

The Ministry made revitalizing Oranjestad's downtown one of its top priorities and contacted the Kingdom of the Netherlands for assistance. The Netherlands allocated funding for infrastructure improvements, but decided to bring in a team of experts to evaluate the issues and make strategic recommendations before distributing the money. Following the success of the APA's Dutch Dialogues, a Dutch-American collaboration that focused on rebuilding New Orleans and improving the city's water management, the Dutch government contacted the APA about a similar approach to address Aruba's needs.

In response, the American Planning Association assembled a team to look at the challenges of revitalizing downtown Oranjestad; restoring health to Rancho, an adjacent residential neighborhood; connecting the port to Main Street; and solving water-quality issues on the island. John Reinhardt, APA workshop director of Renobacion Urbano, assembled a team of 20 people from the United States, the Netherlands, Aruba and surrounding Caribbean islands to work on the island for one week and then make recommendations to the Aruban government and general public.

On Sunday, June 20th, we took an island jeep tour to gain a better lay of the land and a greater understanding of the issues. On Monday and Tuesday, we each presented a session to the Ministry on our area of expertise. Tuesday afternoon, the team formed groups to work with local community leaders and stakeholders to develop recommendations for the four main areas of concern. The stakeholders we worked with were optimistic about the project and grateful to the Aruban government for including them in the process.

Jeff Siegler, left, with other members of APA's Renobacion Urbano Panel Assessment Team in Aruba.

I worked with Anna Jones of PUMA Consulting, a BID expert from Denver, and Oranjestad Main Street property and business owners, tourism officials, the chamber of commerce, the University of Aruba, and a local government official. We visited Main Street Oranjestad and discussed the underlying issues that had led to the decline of the district. Without a connection to the port and with a glut of low-end clothing shops, Caya G. F. Betico Croes does not attract many tourists. Most businesses are locally owned and there are few vacancies, but little of the merchandise reflects Aruban culture. As is the case in many communities back home, there was a lack of communication among stakeholders, a lack of cooperation between the public and private sector, and a lack of a plan to move forward.

Each group made recommendations on its particular topic. My team recommended creation of a new public-private organization that would include all stakeholders so that everyone could work together to make strategic decisions about the district. We also discussed fostering a more diverse business mix, strengthening existing businesses, cultivating entrepreneurs, and creating additional incentives for local business and property owners. Our recommendations were well-received and shared a couple of common themes with the other groups, such as concentrating on the authentic Aruban experience, developing partnerships, and striving to become a great place to live first and letting tourism follow.

The people of Aruba were exceedingly kind and appreciative of our work. The Prime Minister was an incredibly gracious host and I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with such a distinguished team of professionals. At the heart of our work, Main Street is about building community and leveraging local resources to create sustainable, healthy places to live. It is immensely rewarding to realize that no matter where we work, the job we do is important.