Sept. 7, 2006 – With bright sunlight gently falling on a knoll overlooking the Tutu valley, ground was broken Thursday morning for the St. Thomas Regional Library and Records Center.
Under a gay green-and-yellow-striped tent, dignitaries shared their wonder and pleasure at the tangible beginning of a dream some say goes back more than 20 years.
The stage was packed with people who, in one way or another, were responsible for the day.
Though she didn't take the podium, Claudette Lewis was the name on almost every speaker's lips. Lewis, executive assistant commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, has fought an uphill battle for more than 12 years to see this day. Her name has become almost synonymous with the elusive dream of the Tutu facility.
Getting to the ceremony today has been a long and rocky road pitted with all manner of obstacles ranging from controversy over the removing of artifacts on the site to funding battles and political foot-dragging.
The $11.3 million, 57,000-square-foot structure is a public-private partnership between the government and Tutu Park Mall. The Public Finance Authority passed a $9 million bond issuance in June and Tutu Park Mall will contribute $2.3 million.
The June 2005 benefits package for Tutu Mall [an Economic Development Commission beneficiary] stipulates Tutu Park must: ?
— spend no less than $2.25 million to develop and construct a library facility of approximately 23,000 square feet; and ?
— donate $50,000 to DPNR's Division of Libraries and Museums for the purchase of materials, including books, equipment, computers and other items for the library. ?
The new facility will include a 5,000-square-foot reading room, a Caribbean room, a 2,500-square-foot young adults area and a public auditorium with seating for about 100.
Frank Schulterbrandt, CEO of the Economic Development Authority, started things off. "We have waited years and years, and the time is now here. It's been a challenge. It couldn't have happened without Claudette Lewis who kept calling me and calling me."
Pausing for a moment, Schulterbrandt said, "You know how kids will say they don't have anything to do. Now they will have books; you can do a million things with a book."
John Foster, Tutu Park Mall partner, rose with evident pride, smiling from ear to ear. Foster has been in on the project from the beginning. "Years of patience have gone into bringing this day. I hope to have contributed in a small way to the history of the Virgin Islands, to be part of this gift. The great moment will be when we see the first Virgin Islander enter the front door."
Sammy Harthman was humble and humorous. The Harthman family donated the four acres where the facility will sit. Waving his arm to indicate the rolling nearby hills, Harthman said, "This used to be a cornfield in the old days, but the soil wasn't conducive to farming. Then it was a racetrack where Tutu and Charlotte Amalie horses competed."
Bringing things to the present, Harthman smiled. "One day Claudette Lewis and Sen. Judy Gomez came to talk to me. They asked if I would give them one and a half acres to build a library. Well, I didn't hear from them for a while, and then one day Claudette called and said, 'What, you don't like me? If you do, you would make that two acres.' Then, she said to make it two and a half acres so there would be room for artifacts. Well, today it is four acres."
After his remarks, Harthman formally presented the property deed to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. The governor, in the spirit of the day, said, "Well, Mr. Harthman, I was tempted to say 'You don't like me?' and see if we could get five acres."
Kent Bernier, named yesterday as the interim PFA director, talked about Lewis' efforts. "She came to me six years ago when I was in the governor's office and told me she 'knew my passion,' and asked for funding. Well, this year the PFA was able to give the funding, $9 million this June."
Architect John Woods gave a rundown of the building's construction history. "It's tripled in size since the original plans, " he said. And he had good news. "It will be built in phases and we will get started quickly. In 15 to 18 months we will be realizing our vision."
Dean Plaskett, DPNR commissioner, gave the day to his deputy. "The day is Claudette's," he said. "The praise goes to her and to the DPNR staff. Her efforts have been above and beyond. Now, we will have resources, archives, and a new bookmobile, too."
Turnbull concluded the ceremony. "I'm proud to be part of this long-awaited day," he said. And, ever the historian, he said contemplatively, "On this site 1,000 years ago was the earliest settlement, before organized society."
Excitement was in the air, as the audience moved outside for the ceremonial groundbreaking, complete with bright yellow hard hats and golden shovels. The audience ranged from members of the Friends of St. Thomas Public Libraries, a group that has lent its support for the library for years, to the usual sprinkling of politicians and community members, like Maria and Ken Spenceley.
Possibly the oldest library booster was 84-year old Kenneth Broome, who remembered the island's first library. "It was in the old Hotel Italia building by St. Thomas Lumber and Trading. I remember going there in 1939," Broome said. "The books were mostly donated by the Navy. In fact, some of the Navy books are still at the Baa Library. I pulled out a book a while back, 'How to Live in the Tropics,' and it was marked as being donated by the Navy."
He looked around at the ceremony. "This is a wonderful day," he said.
Wallace Williams, territorial library director, who has more than 30 years as a librarian, gazed at the handsome sign depicting the new structure. "I remember back in the '80s when I was on the Humanities Council, and we didn't know where to find things, to research things. I have a great feeling being here today. It's amazing."
Gomez seconded Williams' sentiment. "This is really a day the lord has made. It is the first of my dreams, since Claudette and I met with Mr. Harthman. Books are our greatest weapon against illiteracy."
Once all was said and done, Lewis finally commented. Asked to sum up what it took to arrive at this day, Lewis looked very serious. "Perseverance," she said. "It's been a long journey."
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