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Thursday, June 20, 2024


Aug. 3, 2001 – Still smiling over the unanimous vote of confidence he got from the Senate a week earlier, Eric Matthews, president of the company behind the long-planned Carifest theme park, explained how the legislation brings his dream another giant step closer to reality.
"What it does is tell the prospective investor that the Virgin Islands government is 100 percent behind us — and that's what has been missing," Matthews said of the visitor attraction that has occupied nearly 15 years of his life. Now, he said, the project will be seen with more promise in the investment community.
Matthews and Leo Barbel Jr., Carifest chairman, had anticipated that the bill — special ordered onto the Senate floor early on July 19 before the Legislature took up the governor's supplemental appropriations bill — would pass. But they were surprised and delighted that it did so without opposition. "We feel great. This is really an exciting day for us," Matthews said at the time, "We have turned a big, big corner."
On Friday, the turn changed from tentative to for-true. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull signed into law the legislation establishing a "public benefit corporation" that he said will "provide the bonding authority needed to fund the theme park," according to a Government House release.
Once the official papers are drafted, the corporation will be able to issue tax-exempt revenue bonds, Dan Ray, senior vice president of the investment banking firm Newman & Associates, explained. Newman & Associates is a subsidiary of GMAC Commercial Mortgage Corp., which is underwriting the bonds.
"In order to issue the tax-free bonds," Ray said, "a government entity needs to be a sponsoring body, and that is what the legislation performs, without obligating the government in any way. We must make it clear that the V.I. government is in no way financially obliged; based on what we know of V.I. law, we felt it necessary to have this legislation to make it clear that it was established legally."
The argument in favor of creating the public benefit corporation, Ray said, was that there will be a public benefit derived for which there is a "compelling need" — in this case, an infusion into the territorial economy.
"We are excited," Ray said. "This is a public benefit project which will provide jobs, cultural heritage and recreational facilities."
The legislation carried the endorsement of Amadeo Francis, Public Finance Authority director, who confirmed in a letter to the Senate that the corporation would incur no obligations on behalf of the V.I. government.
Carifest — formally called the Caribbean Cultural Heritage Center and Discovery Park Corp. in the bill — now has a November groundbreaking date. The $80 million park will be developed on 9.2 acres fronting on the St. Thomas harbor adjacent to the West Indian Co. docks in Havensight. Carifest holds a 70-year lease on the property from WICO.
"It's been blood, sweat and tears," Matthews said, "but I always knew it could be done, and I've always known how much it's needed."
The project has grown and shrunk; its location has changed from the Bolongo area; its cost has more than doubled from the original $35 million price tag; and it has had more groundbreaking dates than Punxsutawney Phil. But one thing has remained constant: Matthews' and Barbel's faith in what they were doing.
An idea whose time has been coming
Matthews, a 30-year St. Thomas resident, got the notion for a theme park in the '80s, when he worked with Win de Lugo in the V.I. Film Promotion Office. "I'm from Southern California, so I grew up with Disney," he recalled. "Win and I were always looking for filming locations — bits and pieces of island points of interest — and it occurred to me how great it would be if we could generate some kind of attraction that would combine the cultures of all the Caribbean islands in one area."
He took the idea to Barbel, a real estate and finance businessman and government consultant, in 1988, and Barbel's entrepreneurial instincts lit up. "He immediately saw its potential," Matthews said.
Barbel, a native Virgin Islander, has helped underwrite the financing for the concept design and pre-development work on Carifest. "Leo and I share the same vision; we've done a hell of a lot of work together for these islands, for our islands," Matthews said.
Carifest — as both supporters and detractors are fond of pointing out — isn't strictly a Virgin Islands-oriented venture. As the name implies, it will incorporate the cultural aspects of many Caribbean islands, from Cuba and Jamaica to Trinidad and Tobago. Nor is it modest in its concept. A "Birth of the Caribbean" river ride will depict the evolution of the region: the volcanic geological rise of the archipelago; its pre-Colombian inhabitants; the exploits of Columbus, Cortes, Drake and other European explorers; the migration and struggles of all the peoples of Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas who have created what is now Caribbean culture.
And that's just the beginning. A "Folklife Village Marketplace" will showcase goods and cultures of various islands. A "Calypso Hall of Fame" will feature top performers. Visitors will be able to wander into an Arawak or Carib village or explore an "Old Sugarmill Rum Factory" and stop off at a "Caribeana Theater" where they might see a live pirate fight. Topping it off, literally, will be an aviary exhibiting exotic birds and butterflies surrounded by local flora and fauna.
Those are the daytime attractions. Then there's the planned nightly "Carifest After Dark" show, complete with a "Carnival Parade," which Matthews sees as appealing to the hotel market, including families, as well as providing an incentive for cruise ships to stay in port after sunset. (Legislation allowing ships to open their casinos while in port at St. Thomas, enacted several years ago in the hope of boosting the downtown economy, hasn't had the effect anticipated.)
Initial plans in 1992 called for the theme park to be built on about 33 acres of land in Estate Bolongo, but residents were unreceptive. The WICO property was a natural to attract cruise ship visitors. Two major development hurdles have been cleared: A Coastal Zone Management permit is in place, and the project has been approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Community support has long been there
Matthews has said Carifest construction will employ about 200 workers and the theme park, once open, will employ about 400 local residents. Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd said at the July 19 legislative session that it "will be a way of life … It will provide jobs and opportunities for young people."
The Government House release reporting on the governor's having signed the public benefit corporation bill into law quoted Turnbull as saying the theme park "will become an additional attraction for visitors and residents alike to see the cultural aspects of the Caribbean in one central place," thereby "providing an additional economic stimulus" for the territory.
In the early 1990s, then-Senate President Virdin Brown held "hearings galore," according to Liburd, but the project still got no official backing from the government. And yet, community support has been there all along, Matthews said, noting that the $4 million committed to the project so far has come from local investors.
"When visitors come to St. Thomas on a cruise ship, Carifest will be the first thing they see," Matthews said, beaming. And why not? That's 1.7 million people a year — and growing, according to WICO projections.
Dorothy Elskoe, head of the Committee to Revive our Culture, which has been working for years to give tourism a cultural fo
cus, expressed pleasure at the Senate action. "It's right in line," she said. "It's something we should have done long ago."
Elskoe has been a strong supporter of Carifest from its inception. "I used to go in when they were planning, and we would talk about it — Leo Barbel is my cousin, you know," she said. "It's a very good idea, very different for locals, too, and the tourists. They've worked so hard. We're really in full favor of it."
William McComb, the project's engineer and environmental consultant since 1995, expressed pleasure about the Senate action, too. "I'm in favor of anything to assist in getting it going," he said. It was McComb who shepherded the project through Coastal Zone Management permitting process, obtained the necessary approval from the Planning and Natural Resources Office, and worked with the Historic Preservation Office.
As a result of a CZM Committee hearing in September 2000, the developers agreed, in response to concerns raised by area residents, to make some modifications in their plans. They agreed not to build structures higher than the level of the road through Havensight, a concession to safeguard the harbor views of residents, and altered plans to reduce noise in the area.
Architect Thomas J. Reidenbach, president and senior planning designer at TRA Caribbean Inc. of Orlando, Fla., developed the concept/schematic design for the project. He has worked with Carifest for several years in designing the park's complexity of rides, pavilions and other attractions. Morris Architects, also of Orlando, is overseeing the master planning for Carifest. It should escape no one's attention that the two companies are based in a community that wouldn't be there but for theme-park development.
So, what's the projected opening date now? Matthews pauses, contemplative. He has been here too many times before. "Well … let's say 2003."
At this point, he has no reason to be anything but realistic.

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