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Arts and Culture to Enhance Christiansted Economy According to the Urban Land Institute

Sunday Market Square in downtown Christiansted is a focal point for community development. (Photo courtesy of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development)

In 2018, the Urban Land Institute surveyed Christiansted and recommended creating modern low-income housing, building a vibrant community and forming strong personal connections. The ULI released a report this Fall that suggests enhancing the town further by incorporating arts and culture into the town’s infrastructure and businesses.

Founded in 1947, ULI has formed more than 700 teams of professionals who volunteer to help sponsors redevelop downtowns, manage land and growth, evaluate development potential and revitalize communities and other land management solutions.

Using a 2018 study from American for the Arts, ULI reported that 86 percent of 3,000 adults surveyed agreed “arts and culture are important to local businesses and the economy.” The survey also found that “73 percent believe the arts help them understand other cultures better” and “72 percent believe the arts unify us regardless of age, race and ethnicity.”

The sponsoring entities for the 2018 survey were the V.I. Housing Finance Authority and V.I. Housing Authority, who prepared extensive materials and set up meetings with local community members and stakeholders. According to Deanna James, executive director of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development, about a dozen ULI team members visited the island, including an economist, a real estate developer and a cultural anthropologist.

“They spend a week or two, kind of getting to know a place and then put out a report saying, ‘this is what future development of this place looks like,'” she told the Source.

James said the team was “shocked” by the overall response of townspeople who seemed satisfied with the town as it is and were more interested in “place keeping” than “placemaking.” The residents and business owners did not want to lose the flavor, culture or look of Christiansted.

In the report, ULI acknowledged that income, education and health disparities caused by slavery and institutional racism were intensified by a fluctuating economy and the closure of the St. Croix refinery.

The 2022 report focused on five priorities to address equitable economic development, infrastructure, mobility, housing and place keeping.

• Christiansted must diversify its economy, the report said. Rather than looking for large companies, the town should look for small businesses in such areas as the arts and e-commerce – investing in the town’s people and creating opportunities for them.

• Infrastructure should focus on renewable energy, privatization of utilities, efficient waste management and improved water. The town’s aging buildings are one of the most pressing challenges, according to the report. (The 2018 report said the privatization of utilities would transfer high capital costs to the private sector. Then government regulation could ensure low-cost-high-value services.)

• Disaster recovery funds should be used to invest in different methods of transportation in Christiansted, such as a bike-sharing system and motor scooters.

• Housing should involve the community input regarding new ways to design and develop affordable housing, taking into account poverty and joblessness.

• Place keeping is sharing art and culture in public spaces and real estate development that promotes tourism with parks, public spaces and utilizing the waterfront. (The 2018 report recommended marketing St. Croix’s story/history “vigorously” to grow tourism. The island’s natural environment, unique sense of place and vibrant Cruzan culture is the “most fundamental asset to build from,” according to the report).

The original Alexander Theater before Hurricane Hugo in 1989. (Photo courtesy of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development)

After the initial survey in 2018, The St. Croix Foundation has implemented several of the Land Institute’s suggestions. Since then, FEMA funding was approved to rebuild the historic Alexander Theater in Sunday Market Square. New additions to the plans for a performing arts theater are incorporating a meeting room and a hurricane shelter.

Work has begun to refurbish the Alexander Theater into a performing arts center, meeting space and hurricane shelter. (Photo courtesy of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development)

Across the street, the Alexander House (the former V.I. Police Departments’ bike patrol station) and the area behind it will be used for low-income housing, according to James.

The foundation, which owns other properties in town, including the Moorhead property at the entrance to Christiansted, will act as stewards rather than property owners to preserve the history of the residents and the architecture, James said.

Another ULI recommendation was launched in 2019 with a grant from Coca-Cola. The St. Croix Foundation gifted seven local farmers with a movable farm stand – a steel container with solar panels, Wi-Fi and potable water. The farm tiendas allow the farmers to enhance their business and are located around the island, creating hubs for the community after future disasters.

“At the core of all the things we’re doing, obviously there’s a focus on developing an economy – a viable and sustainable economy. Making sure the infrastructure is strong, mobility access and of course, that the places we’re developing, people actually really have access to those places. And that everything we’re doing is for cultural preservation and place keeping,”

The ULI report has stirred interest within other community organizations that are also working on improvement plans for Christiansted, Frederiksted and other sections of the island. In the near future, the Source will feature the work of two such non-profits: Crucian Heritage And Nature Tourism (CHANT) and the Virgin Islands Architecture Center for Built Heritage and Crafts, Inc.

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