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Charlotte Amalie Harbor Dredging Advances with $17 Million Funding Approval by Lawmakers

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The longstanding dispute between the V.I. Port Authority and the West Indian Company (WICO) has reached a resolution with the legislative approval of $17 million in funds for the Charlotte Amalie harbor dredging initiative.

Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. championed Bill 35-0191, which garnered support during the Committee on Budget, Appropriations and Finance’s session this Tuesday. “Sustained investment is vital for maintaining the Virgin Islands’ appeal as a top-tier tourist destination,” asserted Mr. Francis. He stressed the need for the territory to accommodate the new generation of larger cruise ships to preserve its revenue stream and competitive standing. The territory, he warned, risks falling behind other Caribbean locales that have already commenced similar enhancements.

This legislative action earmarks up to $17 million from the current fiscal year’s budget surplus, identified within the gross receipts tax debt service reserve fund. Nathan Simmons, the Public Finance Authority’s Director of Finance and Administration, recounted the PFA’s notification from the Bank of New York Mellon of an approximate $17.5 million overage in the reserve fund. Following this discovery, the PFA Board of Directors authorized the allocation of $17 million from these excess funds in July 2022 for the harbor dredging project.

In testimony to the committee, WICO President and CEO Anthony Ottley threw his support behind the bill, citing unanimous agreement from cruise industry partners on the project’s urgency, primarily due to safety concerns. Ottley described how silt and debris accumulation in the harbor was not just visibly problematic but posed a significant hazard to the larger vessels currently docking, such as the Carnival XL Class ships, pointing out that without intervention, these ships could be redirected away from the Virgin Islands.

Mr. Ottley emphasized that the cost of the project is a small price to pay compared to the potential economic fallout of not proceeding with the dredging. “By ensuring our harbor can welcome all sizes of cruise ships, we aim to solidify our status as a premier Caribbean cruise destination,” he stated.

V.I. Port Authority Executive Director Carlton Dowe addressed the issue of funding, noting that the existing tariff system has fallen short in accumulating the funds needed for such extensive maintenance work. Dowe proposed a long-term solution of federalizing the harbors, similar to practices in neighboring Puerto Rico, which would facilitate annual maintenance through the Army Corps of Engineers, thereby reducing the local government’s financial burden.

Despite the recent legislative victory, it’s recognized that the dredging project’s costs will exceed the $17 million mark. Discussions are actively underway among VIPA, WICO, cruise line representatives, the Governor’s Office, and the PFA to address the financial shortfall. Ottley reassured the committee that despite previous public disagreements, WICO is fully committed to collaborative efforts to ensure the dredging proceeds smoothly.

With unanimous committee support, Bill 35-0191, initially requested by the Office of the Governor, moves to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further deliberation.

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VIHFA Submits Finalized Amendment to Mitigation Action Plan for HUD Review

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The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA) has officially submitted its finalized Second Substantial Amendment to the Mitigation Action Plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for review. This amendment, shaped by extensive community feedback from recent public meetings and online forums, is expected to receive a response from HUD by July 2024.

“We are deeply grateful to the Virgin Islands community for their active participation in shaping this plan,” said Dayna Clendinen, VIHFA Chief Disaster Recovery Officer. “By prioritizing and investing in critical infrastructure projects, workforce development, small business growth, and economic stabilization initiatives, we can build a more resilient Virgin Islands. This comprehensive approach strengthens our communities, equips them to withstand future storms, reduces environmental impact, and fosters a thriving future for everyone.”

Key Highlights of the Second Substantial Amendment

Increased Funding for Infrastructure: The amendment increases funding for Infrastructure and Public Facilities from $363 million to $423 million. This additional support will finance the second phase of the Veterans Drive Improvement Project, which includes stormwater improvements, minimized erosion and pollution, and enhanced pedestrian mobility and safety.

Enhanced Economic Resilience Programs: Two new programs have been introduced to bolster economic resilience and revitalization:

  • Entrepreneurship Resilience and Innovation Program: Funded at $8 million, this program offers additional support for small businesses.
  • Workforce Development Mitigation Program: Also funded at $8 million, this program focuses on critical local training initiatives.

For more details, the finalized Second Amendment to the Mitigation Action Plan can be viewed on the VIHFA website.

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Lawmakers Approve Leases for Sejah Farm and Rumina Construction, Bolstering Local Economic Growth

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The Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance has approved two lease agreements of government-owned lands to support a local farm and a construction company, fostering economic development in the Virgin Islands. The bills now await approval from the 35th Legislature and Governor Albert Bryan.

Sejah Farm Lease

Bill No. 35-0261 authorizes a lease between the Government of the Virgin Islands and Yvette and Dale Brown, owners of Sejah Farm of the Virgin Islands. The 15-acre property, located at Plot No. 9-P Estate VICORP Lands, Prince Quarter, St. Croix, will be used for farming and related activities.

Senator Marvin Blyden, presenting the bill, emphasized the importance of the twenty-year lease for the farm’s ongoing livestock and crop production. Sejah Farm operates an agricultural learning center, teaching animal husbandry, soil improvement, and value-added production. The annual rent for the property is set at $225.69.

Mrs. Brown outlined the farm’s use of the property, which includes livestock grazing, organic crop production, and poultry, meat, and egg production. The farm supplies fresh meat and vegetables to local and overseas markets, focusing on bolstering the territory’s agricultural sector.

Rumina Construction Lease

Bill No. 35-0255 details a multi-year lease agreement with Rumina Construction, LLC, for land at Submarine Base, No. 6 Southside Quarter, St. Thomas. The lease allows the company to use the land for an equipment and material storage depot yard, construction company office, and related purposes. Senator Blyden noted that the lease supports a local business that provides essential services to the community.

Rumina Construction, involved in several hurricane recovery projects, employs twelve Virgin Islanders. Franklin Victor, the company’s owner, reported significant investments in property improvements, totaling nearly $100,000 since the original lease.

The bills will proceed to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

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Debate on Sidewalk Bar Proposal Ignites at Historical Preservation Meeting

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The St. Thomas-St. John Historical Preservation Society convened on a recent Tuesday to deliberate on several matters, including a contentious proposal for a new sidewalk bar at Meada’s Plaza in Cruz Bay. The plan, which calls for tearing down an existing concrete slab and erecting new structures with subtle lighting and movable seating, sparked a lively debate over aesthetics, public parking, and the complexities of navigating the permitting maze within historic districts.

Sean Krigger, the director of the State Historical Preservation Office, voiced his reservations about the design elements of the proposed bar, particularly the herringbone pattern intended for the perimeter wall. He suggested that the design might clash with the existing architectural style of Cruz Bay, which leans towards a more modern aesthetic. “The flooring might handle the design, but on a wall, it becomes too conspicuous,” Krigger explained. He proposed exploring the use of stone, which is prevalent in the district’s construction.

During the discussions, the perennial issue of parking resurfaced, mirroring concerns raised at a similar meeting of the St. Croix Historic Preservation Committee. Enrique Rodriguez, a committee member, pointed out that the proposed site for the sidewalk bar had been originally designated for parking. The local zoning laws currently do not allow the Historical Preservation Committee (HPC) to waive these parking requirements, a point Krigger emphasized. However, Kurt Marsh, another member, noted that the developers possessed a nearby parking lot that might serve as an alternative parking space, pending approval from planning authorities.

The committee also considered whether to approve the project conditionally, pending the acquisition of all necessary permits. Krigger strongly opposed this, stating, “We should not approve projects that do not fully comply with zoning and building laws.” This sentiment underscored the committee’s commitment to upholding legal standards rigorously, contrasting with the more flexible approaches sometimes observed on other islands.

Architect Clarence Brown expressed frustration with the convoluted permitting process, recounting instances of being shuffled between departments without clear guidance. “It’s baffling that every agency points to another, and yet we’re expected to have all approvals in place before moving forward,” Brown stated.

Ultimately, despite Krigger’s objections, Marsh proposed granting conditional approval, dependent on confirmation of the alternative parking arrangements and necessary adjustments to the design plans. The committee unanimously agreed, marking a significant step forward for the proposed project at 6B Vester Gade in Cruz Bay, St. John, despite the noted challenges and procedural hurdles.

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