Undercurrents: With Funding in Reach, Centennial Commission Gets Serious

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Plans for the Transfer Centennial Celebration in 2017 are off to a slow start, but promise to pick up speed once the funding is actually released – unless they get bogged down in politics.

“If we do this right, it’ll be a memorable experience” for the territory’s youth, according to Eugene Petersen, who said he vividly and fondly recalls the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the territory’s transfer from Denmark to the United States.

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A member of the Transfer Centennial Commission, Petersen is also its public relations spokesperson.

He sees the centennial as potentially the ultimate in win-wins – an economic boost for the territory; an opportunity to familiarize more mainland Americans with the Virgin Islands; a way to strengthen historical and cultural ties to Danes, a unifying force in the community; a celebration of V.I. culture; and a living history lesson for V.I. students.

And with ancestral and cultural tourism gaining in popularity, “This is a way, I believe, to attract people from all over the world,” Petersen said.

Activities should include displays and lectures at schools, entertainment featuring both visitors and island talent, and activities that emphasize historical and cultural ties. The commission has announced it will take a chronological approach, focusing first on the pre-Columbian period; then on the Colonial period, including the forced migration of slavery; and finally into the modern era.

Petersen said the territory has already received communications from a number of Danish groups, including the Danish Police Association, a Tivoli Garden Band, and groups who feature quelbe music, all wanting to participate.

There are some hurdles to overcome though.

Created by legislation in late 2013, the 16-member, all-volunteer commission was unfunded for its first year and a half. That has meant, for one thing, that if members wanted to meet face to face, they’d have to pay their own travel expenses from one island to another, so most of the communication has been via phone and email.

The commission announced a logo contest last summer, but could not offer a monetary prize. Petersen said it drew only about 14 submissions from “six or seven” people and none captured the spirit the commission was seeking. Even if it had selected a logo, it couldn’t pay for stationery to display it.

But with funding almost in reach, Petersen said the commission will consider paying a professional to design a logo because, “We do have to have a logo.”

The announcement last month that the U.S. Interior Department will release a $500,000 grant to the territory for the centennial celebrations was welcome news – especially since, Petersen said, “Interior was talking $30,000 or $40,000 at first.”

Petersen said he believes the money will come as a lump sum, but the territory first must make a formal request for it. Once it comes, the Office of Management and Budget will oversee disbursements.

As for local funds, Petersen noted that the Tourism 2016 budget proposal contains $75,000 for the centennial.

If the line-item survives the budget process, it will be at least October before it is available – and could be months later than that.

Perhaps a quicker fix will come through a bill that Petersen said Sen. Myron Jackson, a commission member, is preparing. In it, Jackson will propose a $250,000 appropriation, Petersen said.

Money – or the lack thereof – is not the commission’s only concern. Three of its members already have resigned.

Marilyn Krigger left last fall and was replaced by Charles Turnbull. More recently, Cecile deJongh and Roy Watlington have resigned. They have not yet been replaced, although Petersen said he believes Gov. Kenneth Mapp will soon appoint two new members.

It can’t come too soon. Petersen said there’s a lot of work to do.

“The commission members really need to get on the ball,” he said, but as volunteers, they can’t be expected to do everything.

Petersen said the commission wants to use local appropriations to hire an executive director and an assistant.

It also plans to use existing community resources, tapping such organizations as the Friends of Denmark, Rotary Clubs and the Chambers of Commerce.

“We’re going to put out a clarion call to nonprofits,” he said.

The actual 100th anniversary of Transfer Day is March 31, 2017. According to the law that created the commission, centennial activities should begin on or before Aug. 4, 2016, and terminate Dec. 31, 2017.

Petersen was candid about the small but vocal opposition to the festivities.

“We know we have people who don’t want to celebrate” what they say is the transfer of the Virgin Islands from one colonial power to another. Opponents also see the proposal for creating a congressional centennial commission as inviting interference. But for Petersen, the celebrations should be a matter of pride and unity.

“We’re hoping that none of the political issues seeps into the work of the commission,” he said.

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