The Research and Technology Park on St. Croix requested approval to develop a 26-acre parcel of land zoned for agriculture for a development that would include non-agriculture projects, including new housing and a hotel, during the Legislature’s Committee of the Whole Monday evening.
Peter Chapman, executive director and chief executive officer of the UVI RTPark, and several supporters described the project’s first phase, which they said has a $40 million price tag. The land in question is located on Center Line Road between St. Croix Educational Complex and the Agriculture Department Fairgrounds. To date, the land has been used mainly for parking for the Agriculture Fair and Farmers Markets.
Chapman said that when the RTPark was founded in 2002, in partnership with the University of the Virgin Islands and the V.I. government, it was intended to help diversify the economy and focus on sustainable agriculture.
“The Tech Village project seeks to harness opportunities in the agricultural sector to help expand food production and grow and diversify our economy,” he said.
In addition to 18 acres dedicated to sustainable agriculture-related activities, 60 units of moderate-income housing will be built, and a new hotel would provide revenue and enhance UVI’s hospitality training programs with on-the-job training. Chapman said the Tech Village will create around 125 construction jobs and 300 permanent jobs.
Also testifying was Richard Warburg of Impact Traits, the anchor business for the new development. His company plans to start by growing acres of cassava to help feed 700 million of the world’s poorest people. Production will include processing gluten-free flour as well as the tubers. They also will collaborate with UVI to provide education on cassava production and processing. In the future, franchises and royalties can be sold, he added.
“At Impact Traits, we are working to develop the U.S. Virgin Islands as the primary or sole source of unique proprietary plants, including, for example, cassava, cannabis, peanuts, bananas and oil palm,” he said.
A portion of the income generated from farming 18 acres will provide financial support for St. Croix farmers as well as food collaboration, a farmers’ cooperative and farming opportunities. Income from the hotel and other enterprises will also benefit farmers, the project’s backers testified.
Sydney Paul, RTPark senior business manager, showed drawings of the project and gave a general timeline. Presently, the site plan is being completed and refined and the first phase of construction will begin in December 2021. The housing and office space should be completed and occupied in 2023, she said.
Partners for the first phase of the project include an HBCU Opportunity Fund organized by the Kresge and Rockefeller Foundations, a private equity firm Renaissance Equity Partners and New York-based Dwight Capital. Renaissance and Dwight Capital account for around $15.5 million of required financing for the apartments and offices, to include a non-recourse mortgage. Chapman said the remaining $7 million will be filled by a Community Development Block Grant.
During questioning and comments, senators said they were impressed by the “well thought out” presentation and professional presenters.
Despite the praise, several offered alternative sites that would not require rezoning agricultural land. Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. suggested locating the project on the south shore, and Sen. Kurt Vialet recommended land south of the university. Chapman said neither was acceptable due to enterprise zone designations and federal regulations.
Others, such as Sen. Dwayne DeGraff, said they could not support the project because of the agricultural land designation.
“The problem is agriculture land. To allow any land to be used for anything other than agriculture, I cannot support,” he said.
Sen. Myron Jackson wanted to know if the best use for the land had been determined to be the parcel in question and said it shouldn’t be rezoned just because it hadn’t been used in 50 years.
“Anything agriculture, in my mind, I want to see how the farmers benefit,” Sen. Athniel “Bobby” Thomas said. “The land should have a better use than just solar panels.”