WHEN Datuk Maimunah Mohd Sharif became Seberang Prai Municipal Council president in 2011, she found Butterworth to be a dead town by night.
Fresh from her earlier position as George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) general manager, where she joined a team to seek for George Town’s listing as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and as a town planner for 25 years, she felt the call to do something for Butterworth.
So, she embarked on a study within the council called, Butterworth New Image (Imej Baru Butterworth or IBB), to explore the possibilities of making the town more vibrant.
“I gathered a small group of young council officers from different departments including our Heritage Unit and formed a Tourism Task Force to initiate a research on Seberang Prai.
“Last year, they came up with a Seberang Prai Tourist Map which included some lesser-known landmarks, places of worship and cottage industries.
“Earlier this year, the task force came up with a second edition tourist map which has separate booklets for the three districts on the mainland.
“And, they also came up with a Seberang Prai Heritage Map in July this year,” she said.
Maimunah said at the same time, the council had held talks with Think City Sdn Bhd since 2012 on how best to take the IBB programme further.
She said Think City had engaged a consultant, AJM Planning and Urban Design Group Sdn Bhd (APUDG) from Kuala Lumpur to be part of the Butterworth New Image programme.
“We are also working together with the City of Yokohama, Japan, under our friendship city ties. Yokohama is very good in urban design and we hope to learn from their success story for Butterworth.
“We have the guidelines but do not have the ability to translate the guidelines into a workable design. In return, they would like to learn more about our heritage,” she said.
Think City Butterworth programme director Murali Ram said the Butterworth Outer Ring Road has the best coastal view of Penang island.
He said buildings along that breezy stretch, including part of Jalan Pantai, had great tourism potential as the scenic waterfront view could boost the economy in the area.
“Imagine sipping a nice cup of coffee or tucking in authentic meals at fancy restaurants while chatting with friends or loved ones from the Butterworth coast. It will be awesome,” he said.
Murali said Butterworth had been left in a state of neglect in the past two decades especially after many of the government offices, including the MPSP headquarters moved out to townships such as Seberang Jaya, Bandar Perda in Bukit Mertajam and Bertam in Kepala Batas.
“We would like to guide property owners in this area to see how best they can better utilise their commercial space by knowing some history and cultural background of their buildings and surrounding area,” he said.
Apart from cafes and eateries, Murali said, some of the buildings there could be turned into art galleries, music halls, sports centres and homestay facilities, besides becoming tourist destinations because of their heritage value.
“At present, we see part of Jalan Bagan Luar and Jalan Telaga Air fast turning into a Little India, which is a good thing. Jalan Raja Uda is already a thriving Chinatown. We hope some of the wakaf area in Jalan Telaga Air can be turned into a commercial area for the Malays,” he said.
He said a locomotive museum could be set up at the Butterworth Railway station, while Penang Port Commission could come up with a maritime museum in one of its unused ferries.
“Looking further, we can even have short rail tours for tourists to travel between the Malaysia Smelting Corporation in Butterworth town across the Prai River to the Malayan Sugar Manufacturing Co Bhd (MSM), which produces the famous Prai Sugar in old Prai town.
“We can also organise tours to the well-known Khong Guan biscuit factory in Jalan Siram and to the various places of worship in the vicinity,” he said.
Murali said Think City would soon open a branch office in Butterworth.
Meanwhile, the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) is looking for those who have stories to share about Butterworth and other parts of the mainland.
PHT, in collaboration with MPSP, is in the midst of recording oral stories from the community to tap on the living heritage of the mainland.
PHT president Khoo Salma Nasution said the Seberang Prai Story colloquium, which was recently launched, was aimed at looking at the social history of the mainland.
“It can be a very local story, and that is okay. Even if the speaker cannot present 20 minutes, 10 minutes will be fine.
“They can be from any background and speak in any language. It does not have to be academic, but the speaker should have at least interviewed people, collected some information or written about something,” she said, adding that PHT might soon have a few chapters.