Sept. 9, 2002 – Officials of a company planning to build a veterans memorial, museum and services complex on St. Croix are upset that they have not seen the $100,000 in V.I. government funding appropriated by the Legislature for the project in June.
In a release distributed to the news media on Friday, principals of Honorary Military Monument and Portrait Corp., which is proposing to develop the USVI Military Museum and Memorial Complex, urged "veterans and families of veterans interested in making the complex a reality to contact their senator and the governor to encourage them to disburse the funds for this project as soon as possible."
Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel, chair of the Senate Labor and Veterans Affairs Committee, on Monday pronounced the plea "foolishness." She called it "an attempt to blackmail the government, using the veterans to do so."
It was Pickard-Samuel who proposed a veterans center and hospital approved by the Legislature to be built on the old V.I. Hotel property on St. Thomas. That project is in the planning stages, according to the senator. "Backers of the V.I. Hilton spent their own money up front," she added.
As for the St. Croix effort, she said, "I don't know what their plans are. I would want to see in writing how they intend to finance this project. To release $100,000 to anyone without any written agreement would be irresponsible."
Philip Masi Santamaria, president of Honorary Military Monument & Portrait Corp. of Puerto Rico, began trying to get backing in the Legislature for the St. Croix project in 2000 via a bill sponsored by Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste. The Friday release was sent out over Santamaria's name and that of Egbert Thomas, executive vice president of the corporation, in Kennesaw, Georgia.
The Legislature approved the St. Croix project despite stiff opposition at the time. Adj. Gen. Cleave McBean of the V.I. National Guard said then that he found the proposal "convoluted." He suggested the lawmakers look into other legislation relating to veterans that he said has been on the books for a long time and is still not funded. He also said combining a commercial attraction with a memorial, as proposed, was not a good idea. "A veterans memorial is a sacred thing," he said.
Santamaria said in his release that the money was needed to "meet the initial contract obligations" for the project. He said the appropriation was made "with the understanding that the funds were considered to be a loan to the developer and repaid back to the government by the developer" and that "all funding for the multimillion-dollar project would come from independent, corporate and federal sources."
Referring to Santamaria's pledge to repay the loan, Pickard-Samuel asked, "When? In 50 years?"
Santamaria had said at the August 2000 Senate hearing that the project "wouldn't cost the V.I. a thing." He said he had "Patriot missiles" in his back pocket. On Monday, Pickard-Samuel suggested he get those missiles "out of his pocket."
At that 2000 meeting, Santamaria exhibited drawings of his own elaborate two-story design for the memorial. It featured painted battle scenes of various wars, portraits of V.I. military heros, five walls with names of the deceased and several statues. It would, he said, come complete with a clinic, cafeteria, theater, administration building and souvenir shop.
With an admission charge of $5 per person, Santamaria said then, and with 250,000 visitors a year, the complex would have gross revenues of $33 million over a 20-year period. No one pointed out that his computations worked out to $25 million. He also said then that he had tried to get Puerto Rico to adopt his memorial plan but that it had not been accepted there because it would have required an $8 million investment.
The Friday release stated that the museum "will become a tourist destination on St. Croix and may be instrumental in reviving interest by cruise ship lines to make St. Croix, once again, a port of call."
Although Pickard-Samuel voted for the $100,000 appropriation, she said on Monday that she wants documentation as to how and when the funds would be repaid. "If they feel they have their financing in place, if the $100,000 would stop them from the rest of their financing," she said, "I'd say by all means to release the money. But I am not going to participate in any blackmail of the government by anybody."
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