Undercurrents: Transfer Centennial Commission Warming Up

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

Expect to hear more from the Transfer Centennial Commission in the coming weeks. The group has selected an executive director – soon to be announced; has welcomed some new members to replace ones who resigned; will soon launch a website; is readying a vanity license plate to sell to V.I. drivers; and has already held the first of a series of public lectures, according to Commission member Eugene Petersen, who handles public information for the group. 

The activities are thanks in part to the release of some local and federal funding. Petersen said the U.S. Interior Department has sent the $500,000 grant to the territory that was announced last summer and there is money coming through the V.I. Tourism Department. He could not immediately confirm the amount of local funds, but $75,000 had been requested in Tourism’s 2016 budget.

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Considerably more money will be needed if the territory wants to commemorate the March 31, 1917, transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the U.S. in line with current plans.

One of the most expensive features will be hosting international dignitaries for the March 2017 events.  In addition to officials from the U.S. and Denmark, Petersen suggested the U.S. Virgin Islands may want to invite officials from the British Virgin Islands as well as some of its other Caribbean neighbors, and from at least some of the other U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico and Guam.

“There’s going to have to be more funding from someplace” to pay travel and security costs for visiting dignitaries, Petersen said.

He said he’s hopeful some will come through Congress in conjunction with a proposal by V.I. Delegate Stacey Plaskett. 

In June, Plaskett offered the Virgin Islands of the United States Centennial Commission Act of 2015 (H.R. 2912), proposing the creation of a national commission and the issuance of a commemorative postage stamp in recognition of the transfer. 

In response to an email inquiry Monday, her press secretary, Richard Motta Jr., said the bill is pending before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

“While the delegate does not decide the committee’s calendar, she is an active member of the committee,” Motta said, adding that she’s working with members on both sides of the aisle to bring it for mark-up and on to the House floor.

Meanwhile, efforts to get additional local funding are ongoing. Sen. Myron Jackson, who serves as a legislative representative to the V.I. Centennial Commission, had proposed a $250,000 appropriation. 

But Petersen said the legislation was withdrawn because of a misunderstanding of whether it was needed as a match for the Interior grant. He said he expects it to come up again. 

Jackson was on a visit to Cuba and unreachable for comment Monday, according to his office.

The Interior grant “comes with a lot of strings attached,” Petersen said. It can be used for travel expenses for meetings, for instance, but it can’t be used for anything associated with entertainment. That means if the commission holds a public event, it can’t use grant funds to pay for a band to provide entertainment.

Such restrictions are understandable, but they are confining. That’s why local funding is so important, Petersen said.

“It would be money well spent because this is our chance to let people know we are here,” he added –especially given that the territory’s economy is primarily dependent on tourism.

The commission hosted history lectures in November and December on St. Croix and St. Thomas, with speakers talking about the islands in the pre-Columbian era. Those who missed the talks will have another opportunity to view them, Petersen said. The local public broadcasting station WTJX filmed the lectures and will air them some time in the coming weeks.

While it waits for an official website, the commission does maintain a Facebook page that features numerous historical photos submitted by various organizations and individuals. Petersen said the commission advertised for a web designer and has received two responses.

Shawn Michael Malone and Colette Monroe have been appointed to fill the St. Thomas commission seats left vacant by resignations of Cecile deJongh and Roy Watlington. Petersen said two St. Croix seats are open, but he was unable to immediately confirm which members vacated them.

“We’re looking for some young blood” on the commission, he said. “We need wisdom and experience but we (also) need that youth energy and perspective.”

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