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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, July 19, 2024


The biggest private-sector development on the St. Thomas drawing boards, 10 years in the planning, with a current projected cost of $68 million to $71 million, is not without its controversial elements.
But the criticism in a St. Thomas Coastal Zone Management Committee hearing Wednesday night of plans for the Carifest theme park was couched for the most part in gentle, sometimes even affectionate, terms.
Edith Bornn, longtime League of Women Voters activist and environmental protection advocate, voiced the fears of area residents that the theme park would generate unwanted noise and vehicular traffic in their quiet neighborhood and buildings that would invade their panoramic harbor vistas.
But she reminded the principals in the project, Carifest Corp. chair Leo Barbel Jr. and president Eric Matthews, "For years and years now, I've been in favor of this type of project, although not in Havensight." Plans initially laid a decade ago called for construction of the theme park showcasing local history and culture in the Bolongo area.
Committee member Austin "Babe" Monsanto commented, "This has been a long time coming."
CZM Commission chair Albert Paiewonsky, who chaired the hearing, told Barbel that one committee concern was that "the project would start" but, for funding or whatever reason, "never be finished."
Barbel responded that "GMAC is to be our principal lender. They would like to fund the whole project. The CZM permit is the next step." (Begun as General Motors Acceptance Corp. to provide loans to GM car buyers, GMAC is today a major commercial lending institution.)
Barbel added that contractors for Carifest have extensive theme park experience and "have never had a project that they haven't brought in on time. They have the best reputation in the country."
Wednesday's hearing on the Carifest CZM permit application was an opportunity for the community to hear details of the 9-acre entertainment complex planned for a shoreline area just south of the West Indian Co. docks, and to respond with questions and recommendations.
Details were seen as well. Extending the length of one wall in the conference room on the second floor of the Cyril E. King Airport terminal where the hearing took place were architectural renderings of the design and land-use plans.
No dock, not much sound
William McComb, local civil engineering consultant for the project, summarized environmental safeguards built into the development plans, including soil-erosion control during the construction phase.
While earlier plans called for the construction of a dock, he said, that has changed. "I want to clarify: There is no dock," he said, but a permit will be sought for a single, heavy-duty mooring to accommodate a "pirate ship" that will be a part of thrice-daily "pirate stunt shows" 10 to 12 minutes in length.
McComb said a "surround-sound" system will contain the audio effects, including muffled cannon shots, to the immediate area. The pirate "shots" are about 110 decibels, he added, and "Main Street is 90 to 95 decibels during the day."
Matthews said in addition to being a daytime attraction, Carifest will offer "the type of quality night-related activities that the cruise ships can pre-sell to their passengers" if they will be staying late in port.
Area resident Paul Hoffman, noting that one of his immediate neighbors is Barbel himself, said the design calls for several buildings 130 feet above sea level, "and these would cut off the view of residences in the area." He added, "I believe a 90- to 100-foot limit would not have a negative impact."
Committee member William Newbold said the theme park "is definitely going to generate more traffic," causing "increased congestion in an already tight area." This led several individuals to suggest the time has come to, as League of Women Voters president Erva Denham put it, "get on with the water taxi issue."
WICO president Edward Thomas noted that he avoids those particular words, which for years have been anathema to the land-based taxi industry, preferring instead the term "waterborne transportation." Whatever one calls it, he said, "It can be done now through the prepaid tour concept."
To be or not to be Caribbean
Denham read the league's prepared critique of the project, saying it "should not be represented as authentic Caribbean or Virgin Islands." She said the planned replica of a historic fort "will harshly clash with the authentic Fort Christian across the harbor."
With its Caribbean, rather than Virgin Islands, focus, Denham said, "The impression is you see one island, you've seen them all… Many would prefer for it to remain green foliage, rather than trying to be a composite of all the Caribbean." Saying the league was "disappointed at the artificial pictures of Caribbean life, past and present, that Carifest will project," she suggested that it "would cost less and do more" to show "the real thing."
Similarly, Bornn said, "I feel we should be stressing Virgin Islands history, Virgin Islands culture. We shouldn't try to make St. Thomas an island of Caribbean culture."
Toward the end of the two-hour hearing, Paiewonsky challenged that view. He agreed that as a visitor, he would not be motivated to "see a representation of what I can see for myself." However, he added, "I see myself as a tourist seeing the Virgin Islands first, then visiting the theme park for a taste of the Caribbean, not a taste of the Virgin Islands. I think the park enhances the experience."
Barbel said "this park fits" St. Thomas because "this is the one island in the Caribbean where you find people from all the Caribbean islands living."
Some design aspects seem far removed from anything Caribbean – a canoe trip into a cavern with stalagmites and stalactites, architecture recalling Victorian and Tudor styles, with several domed and "mosque-inspired" structures. However, local architect Robert deJongh, a consultant to the lead architects, said individual buildings are faithful recreations of authentic architectural styles in the various islands.
One tower structure, he said, is a replica of the historic Steeple Building in Christiansted. And the ramparts of the pseudo-fort, in fact, replicate those of Fort Christian except for a domed roof.
October 2002 opening projected
Carifest Corp. has a 50-year lease for the WICO-owned property, with two 10-year extensions. The CZM application specified that, anticipating a permit by late September, earthwork would begin in early October and end by late December, and concrete pouring would start in January. However, McComb said, "We're now looking at starting in February, with the earthwork in March." He said a "soft opening" is planned for October 2002.
Carifest projections envision an average of 2,150 visitors a day, 3,200 in season; 70 percent of those off the cruise ships, 20 percent from the hotels and 10 percent local residents. The CZM application specifies that admission will be $32.50 for ages 12 and up and $19.50 for those younger, with half off for locals.
Visitors are expected to spend two to five hours in the park, 3.5 on average, and spend an average of $36.95 while there.
When fully operational, the park is projected to employ 400 persons, many of them high school and college students, and generate $6.3 million annually in local tax revenues.
"We expect to spend $12 million in the first year that will go into the local economy," Matthews said.
Carifest personnel have seven days in which to respond to issues raised at the hearing, Paiewonsky said, and the public has the same time frame in which to submit comments in writing. He said the committee would rende
r its decision "within 30 days." For further details, call the CZM office at 774-3320.
The five-member St. Thomas CZM committee has two vacancies. Paiewonsky's and Newbold's terms expired in 1995, as did Monsanto's in 1996; however, members continue to serve until successors are sworn in. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has renominated Monsanto and nominated other individuals to the other four seats on the committee. Senate hearings are under way on those nominations.

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