Sept. 15, 2003 – Long languishing on the drawing board, plans for a sports complex on St. Croix took center stage on Monday at a Senate Housing, Parks and Recreation Committee hearing on St. Thomas.
HPR Commissioner Ira Hobson made it clear that the "drawing board" is a thing of the past. He said his department is "moving forward" on the project. "Over the past 20 years," he told Sen. Emmett Hansen II, the committee chair, "the plans died a natural death until our department took over."
Hansen was the sole committee member present for the hearing. Three members were excused and the other one was absent.
From its inception, the proposed sports complex has run into snags and opposition. In 1993, legislation was passed earmarking 100 acres of government land at Estate Body Slob for the facility. Somehow, either before then or since, most of the land has been leased or put to public uses.
At an Aug. 21 HPR Committee hearing on St. Croix, Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence Lewis said the parcel known as the Harveland properties in Estate Body Slob is home now to the Farmers Market, the Fishermen's Market, a Vitran bus stop and a barbecue establishment. He also said that 82.7 acres is leased to St. Croix Dairy Products.
Hobson said then and again on Monday that he has learned that only 30 acres of the Harveland parcel is currently available for the sports complex because of the leases to farmers. He said he has written to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull asking him to turn the remainder of the land over to HPR.
Testifying with Hobson were Hans Lawaetz, V.I. Olympic Committee chair, and Darlan Brin, Port Authority executive director.
As an alternative to the Harveland properties, Hobson expressed an interest in acquiring land for the sports complex within a 100-acre Commerce and Business Park that VIPA is developing on St. Croix. The land designated for the park surrounds Estate Betty's Hope adjacent to Henry E. Rohlsen Airport, bordered by Melvin E. Evans Highway and St. Croix's South Shore.
Brin said the Federal Aviation Administration has mandate that the land adjacent to the airport be used for something related to the aviation industry.
Using diagrams, Brin described the planned park, which he said was recommended by Triad Associates, a Pennsylvania firm contracted to conduct a two-year study for VIPA as part of a "St. Croix Action Agenda" to improve the island's flagging economy.
"We want to make the park an attractive physical offering, as well as a self-sufficient entity with backup power in case of a failure," he said. He stressed the park's access to the high-speed global communications network and connectivity available on-island.
The park is to include a hotel and conference center mandated by the Legislature as part of the development, Brin said. He said VIPA will try to get authorization for a two- or three-star hotel, as opposed to the four-star facility now specified. He said no requests for proposals have been sent out on the project as yet.
Hansen remarked that Brin "didn't appear interested in developing the hotel." Hobson said HPR would be very interested in running the hotel as part of the sports complex.
Hobson said he and Brin have discussed the idea of HPR acquiring the South Shore land for the complex. An investor is also interested in developing a shrimp farm on that same land, Brin said. Hobson said if the sports complex could be built there, it would be a revenue-generating operation and the hotel also would also bring in revenues, "even if it were only used for sports teams."
Laewetz told Hansen that housing is desperately needed for sports teams in the Virgin Islands. "International competition could be hosted here with the proper facilities," he said. "We've been talking for 20 years now about a sports complex," he lamented.
Lawaetz said it's not like the old days: "You can't put teams up in old school classrooms anymore. They want luxury now."
Hansen asked Lawaetz and Brin how they felt about using the Estate Slob property. "It's highly suitable," Brin said. "It's centralized; it has ideal access; it's flat."
Brin remembered: "I worked with Tom Blake when he was head of the Planning Board in the late '60s. He had written his doctorate thesis at Harvard calling for a town on St. Croix at that location."
Lawaetz said the question put him in a difficult position. "I have a conflict of interest," he said, "because my family is in farming." The Lawaetz family owns Anally Farms, which raises the world-famous Senepol cattle first bred on St. Croix.
"If we can get our act together," Hobson said, "we can market a program and use the hotel for a continuous flow of sports-related guests. We may not need other tourists." He said that "$118.3 billion is spent on sports annually."
Hobson said the sports complex is "a journey" the Housing, Parks and Recreation Department is on. "We don't want to take sides between the Legislature and the administration," he said. "We want to work together — no disparity."
He mentioned a similar sports complex proposed for St. Thomas in Estate Nazareth, noting that the project is being challenged by a group that says the site is home to the tree boa, an endangered species.
Most St. Thomas residents had never heard of the small snake until the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, when some Nazareth residents challenged the use of land in the same area for temporary housing units put up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The housing, as planned, was eventually torn down again.
Hansen was incredulous on Monday. "A tree boa, instead of a sports area for our children?" He laughed. "A snake that nobody ever remembers even seeing. They must have a pretty good lobby."
Hansen told those testifying that there is more than enough government land on St. Croix for a sports complex. He said a site "must be identified by the end of the year, so we can move forward."
Park program staffing problems
In other matters, HPR staffing for park programs, especially after school and on weekends, came under scrutiny. Hobson said the department has lost a large percentage of its personnel, including recreation staff, in the last few years. "We've made adjustments, but we look forward to hiring more recreation and maintenance personnel soon," he said.
He said Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, told him recently that he could hire more lifeguards. On St. Thomas, people hired as lifeguards at three public beaches — Coki Point, Lindbergh Bay and John Brewers Bay — could not pass the American Red Cross lifeguard certification course offered earlier this year, and the one assigned to Coki was injured in a traffic accident and was no longer working at the beach as of mid-August. (See "Uncertified lifeguards assigned to 3 beaches".)
However, Hansen told Hobson regarding the lifeguard hiring that "it's not in the budget" as proposed for Fiscal Year 2004, which begins Oct. 1.
Ophelia Jackson, HPR deputy commissioner, told Hansen the department is unable to provide community programs because of staff shortages. "Some areas are left uncovered due to the leader's scheduled off days," she said. "Those areas where there are no leaders, daily programs cannot be carried out."
Stanley Smith, HPR assistant commissioner, agreed. He said the lack of personnel has "severely hampered the department's ability to sponsor programs and manage facilities."
Hansen asked about the after-school recreational programs in each district. St. Thomas has six; St. Croix has none. Jackson said most of the funds allocated for that purpose in the
last quarter went to the St. Thomas-St. John district. Hansen said he doesn't "micro-manage" programs but would review this situation.
There was one other item on the day's agenda — a hearing on the status of horse racing on St. Croix. Hansen said the matter would be rescheduled for a Sept. 25 committee meeting on St. Croix.
The three committee members excused from Monday's session were Sens. David Jones, Luther Renee and Usie Richards. Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. was absent.
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