V.I. Cannot Afford Further Delays in Main Street Enhancement Project

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On April 12, I attended a meeting at Government House. The assembled private sector and Government persons were part of a newly minted Ports of the Virgin Islands- Charlotte Amalie task force. The stated mission is to improve the visitor experience and insure Cruise ship growth to the Ports of Charlotte Amalie. The meeting was Chaired by Governor Mapp and Commissioner of tourism Beverly Doty-Nicholson.

After she and the Governor spoke at length about the urgent mission and related topics the meeting was opened for discussion. I requested that we formally add to the agenda the status of the Main Street Enhancement Project since it was a crucial aspect of the visitor experience and would similarly improve the quality of life for those who live and work in the historic district.

I went on to add that the community was deeply concerned with what appears to be a stalled project. I pointed out that if this project goes the way of the Fort Christian renovation the repercussions would be simply catastrophic for the businesses operating in the district. I said jobs and tax revenue for the government would be destroyed.

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Governor Mapp assured the assembly he was as frustrated with the snail’s pace of the project and the various delays which have been well documented in the media since the project started back in 2013.  (Those delays included a law suit and the suspending of Federal funding for a period of time). We hope funding has in fact been restored.

The Governor said that he would make a big announcement on April 24th with respect to this project, the contractor and the completion of this project. We await this announcement; the community needs to hear a status report.

The original project contract included a provision for the work to be done at night, at a premium, and completed within 18 months, so as not to disrupt the businesses in the district. The night time work is a critical component of this project and needs to be honored or we’ll see more businesses close their doors permanently because of the disruptive nature of the work.  The Daily News has previously reported on upper Main Street merchants whose business and sales have suffered due to the slow progress of the work which has dragged on for months at a time with little to show for it.

The Virgin Islands is at a tipping point. We have lost so much ground to our competition. The port of St. Maarten has far surpassed us as the premier cruise destination in the Eastern Caribbean by investing in their Port and town infrastructure.

St. Maarten renovated their historic district years ago and its beautiful.  The water transportation system has been tremendously effective allowing cruise passengers to get quickly into the shopping district, and to shop longer. Increased sales generate added employment, tax revenue for the government, and promotes economic activity and wellbeing for the community. Beautification of the town has paid economic dividends. 

St. Maarten has the largest berthing capacity for docking multiple Oasis class cruise vessels on a single day, while St. Thomas can only dock one Oasis class ship at Crown Bay.

During the meeting, I pointed out the fact that until the harbor is dredged, allowing WICO to also dock a second Oasis class ship we will continue to lose Mega class ship calls to our competition. To illustrate this point, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise lines are both cutting ship calls in the upcoming 2017-2018 season in favor of St. Maarten. According to published schedules RCI/Celebrity will have 207 ship visits to St. Maarten and a paltry 118 to St. Thomas, a decline over the prior year.

It was acknowledged by Governor Mapp during our task force meeting that each Oasis class ship visit means 4-5 million dollars of spending circulating in our economy, and tax generation for the government. Building back our ship calls is an urgent task force initiative he said. The private sector and businesses agree strongly.

Harbor Dredging will lead immediately to additional Oasis class vessels docking at WICO, pouring millions into our economy and the GERS owned Havensight Mall. As I reported in an earlier cruise ship op-ed series, 33 mega ships are under construction in the next 7 years, most of them headed to the Caribbean. We must be able to dock them at both WICO and Crown Bay or we will lose ship calls.

We simply cannot afford any further delays in the Main Street Enhancement Project, water transportation, and the dredging of the Harbor next to WICO, or we will do irreparable damage to the economy, and to the many people dependent on the tourist trade for their livelihood.

According to Governor Mapp, and what we were told at the task force meeting, these infrastructure initiatives are finally being fast tracked. We hope this is the case and that promises made by the Government are now honored with publicly disclosed time lines for project completion and accountability.

With respect to dredging, it requires tremendous urgency and a detailed plan for how the government WICO/ VIPA will accomplish and fund it over the next 12 months. Millions are at stake, and will be lost if the WICO dock cannot accommodate Oasis class vessels in short order.

We urge Governor Mapp to insure the Main Street Enhancement Project, which has dragged on for years be finally completed expeditiously. We must protect the business and the thousands of employees working in the historic district, and their families.

This project when completed will attract visitors and locals to what once was our premier destination attraction, the historic town of Charlotte Amalie which is in a sad state of decline.

This vital infrastructure project is the corner stone of the town of Charlotte Amalie’s revitalization.  Once completed it can lead to an economic renaissance in our Port as it did for St. Maarten. It is well documented fact beautification pays for itself with increased visitors. 

The Main Street Enhancement Project can and will be an engine for economic growth and renewal and for generating tax revenues and jobs, but it must completed, and that requires the full support of the leadership to guarantee timely completion.

Note: Filippo Cassinelli runs A.H. Riise Mall on St. Thomas, which has been in his family since 1928.

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