While the COVID-19 pandemic has sidelined team sports, it has not left the Sports, Parks and Recreation Department idled, Commissioner Calvert White said on Thursday.
Appearing on The Press Box, the virtual town hall streamed live each week from Government House on St. Croix, White outlined a slew of initiatives his employees are working on and told guest host Dodson James that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the broad mandate of his department.
With 60 facilities to maintain territorywide, as well as most of the islands’ beaches, upkeep is constant, White said, as is securing Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for damages that occurred during hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
“We have not slowed down. I heard a senator say the other night, you know, the parks are closed, they’re not doing nothing. … I understand what he was trying to say, but it is very far from the truth,” White said, explaining that out of 104 employees, only about 30 are recreation staff.
“We have not stopped since the pandemic. … We have to still maintain the field because if we don’t attend it, the grass is going to grow back up. … We are still working,” said White, a former professional basketball player who has a bachelor’s degree in sports management and, before his appointment by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in April 2019, served for 12 years as the assistant commissioner.
“Dealing with the FEMA process has been one of the most frustrating things of the job. I’m not frustrated with FEMA, but the process, it is a long, long process,” White told Dodson, who was assistant commissioner when the department was known as Housing, Parks and Recreation.
“People are not seeing the actual pounding of the nail at the facilities right now. … That’s what we associate with work being done. However, that’s the easy part. The hard part is what people are not seeing right now. The documentation of the facilities, getting RFPs [requests for proposals] out to get bids, engineer estimates. These are things, before the hurricanes, that we didn’t really have to deal with,” said White, who cited projects at the territory’s pools, parks, stadiums and beaches that are in various stages of approval.
Top of the list, however, is the long-stalled rebuild of Paul E. Joseph Stadium in Frederiksted, White said.
“I told the governor, I already tell people that I am going to be the commissioner that is there when we cut the ribbon to Paul E. Joseph Stadium. I am confident that is going to happen,” White said.
“We look forward to when that opens, we are going to have activities going on there. … That waterfront is second to none. It will be so easy for me to get people to come here,” said White, who said he meets biweekly with the Public Works Department on the project.
Meanwhile, the department also must operate under the pandemic mandates of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the V.I. Health Department, White said.
“We don’t take it lightly,” he said, noting that an employee was the territory’s ninth COVID-19 death. Despite flak about facilities and playgrounds being shut down, “At the end of the day, my No. 1 priority is going to be safety.”
Nevertheless, White said he hopes for some resumption of sports in the coming weeks.
“We are not ever going to 100 percent be able to say, if you come to our facilities, absolutely you are not going to contract COVID-19,” said White, but his staff has been trained in prevention and is planning a live ball field simulation to learn firsthand how to handle sanitization and social distancing.
One of his most pressing priorities, however, is giving high school seniors a chance to showcase their athletic talents to secure college scholarships, White said.
Taking a cue from the NBA, which safely completed its season by creating contact bubbles, the department wants to sequester the best junior and senior high school athletes in baseball, basketball, softball and volleyball at the University of the Virgin Islands for two weeks, where videos will be made so they can sell themselves to colleges and universities. Football is still out, because of the contact nature of the sport, White said.
“If we can’t do that, there are going to be some seniors who are going to lose out on the ability to play college sports,” White said. “We’re really trying to simulate what the NBA did.”
In an effort to bring sports and recreation back to the community, his department also recently purchased two drones to film games for broadcast on Facebook, White said.
“So now you don’t have to come to the facility, we’re going to bring the facility to you,” he said.
The department also hopes to host a video game tournament and is planning drive-in movie theater nights at D.C. Canegata Ballpark on St. Croix and Lionel Roberts Stadium on St. Thomas, he said.
“I think where we fall short is – and the governor says this all the time – if the people don’t know that you’re doing it, you really ain’t doing it. So, we need to do a better job of getting out to the public the things that we’re doing,” said White, who announced that a new Facebook page will be launched in November to keep the community abreast of the activities on offer.
He also told residents to be on the lookout for a new clean beaches campaign, with garbage bins donated by Limetree Bay Terminals and the jingle, “If it can’t fit, go with it,” a new “fit lot” for seniors at Altona Lagoon in concert with AARP of the Virgin Islands, which will donate the equipment as well as fund an instructor for three years, and the revitalization of Verne I. Richards Veteran Memorial Park in Frederiksted, thanks to a gift of 13 palm trees.
White also addressed the recent controversy surrounding his salary, the lowest of the executive branch commissioners at $85,000, and to which senators’ pay traditionally had been tied.
With Bryan proposing a $15,000 raise for the head of Sports, Parks and Recreation in 2021, legislators who approved that budget measure were, in effect, also granting themselves a pay hike. Public outcry was swift, however, and senators have since untied their salaries from that of the commissioner.
“We have been in the news for the last three weeks and it hasn’t always been positive but that’s good. I take criticism and I turn it into a positive. I don’t take it personal,” White said. “I, Calvert White, have not received a raise,” or notice of a raise, he added.
“When I took this position, I knew exactly what the salary was,” said White, a St. Thomas native. “Anybody that knows me knows I didn’t take this job for the money. Parks and Recreation is a passion of mine. … I’m sitting here before you because of what the Department of Parks and Recreation did for me.”
He encouraged people to call the department at 340-774-0255 on St. Thomas and 340-773-0160 on St. Croix. White can be reached at 771-690-7181 or on his cell phone at 678-994-7181.
“I love when the people that we serve call the department if there is something that we are not doing. That is my job,” said White. “I’m not perfect, but me and my team work really, really hard to put on programs for the community.”