Feb. 25, 2004 The fate of the derelict Caribbean Steel building on St. Thomas, which has been vacant for close to 10 years, was the subject of lengthy and often heated discussion at the Port Authority's monthly board meeting on Wednesday.
The rusted metal Sub Base building sits directly at the entrance to the Crown Bay cruise ship complex that's under construction. Darlan Brin, VIPA executive director, said the structure poses an eyesore, and that renovation of the property would encourage other development in the Crown Bay area.
Brin presented a report from GMAC Commercial Holding Capital Markets Corp., the authority's investment banking firm, on whether VIPA should finance and develop an office complex at the site, for lease to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service.
The report posed two other options:
– To lease the land to a private developer who would assume the responsbilities and risks of constructing, financing and managing the development.
– To allow a private developer to provide "turnkey" services — that is, to develop the site on behalf of the authority for a fixed fee.
The report stated that a private lease, with or without the "turnkey" option, would be more viable financially than VIPA undertaking the work itself.
Tarance F. Drafts III, V.I. area port director of the Customs and Border Protection Service, said his agency needs a consolidated physical facility on St. Thomas. "We are 20 to 30 years behind times, based on lack of a facility," he said. The service has "no place to examine cargo," he continued. "If cargo is suspect, we need a place to strip it, and we don't have any such facility."
Drafts said that since arriving in the territory in 2000, he has held talks with Gordon Finch, Brin's predecessor at VIPA, and with Brin. He later said that the discussions have been "informal," and that nothing has been put into writing.
Brin told the board: "The Crown Bay project is not as rosy as some think." He said he has had prospective tenants worrying about whether they could stay in business in the summer without a guarantee from the cruise industry for summer traffic. And at the moment, the cruise lines "have no obligation to make summer calls," he said.
The Crown Bay development will not bring in enough revenue "in its first five years to service its debt," Brin said, and the marine revenues have been pledged to support the debt service. "We haven't the authority to tax, so we pledge our resources," he said. To protect those resources, he said he favors a private development option for the Caribbean Steel site which would not encumber the authority with further bond issuance.
Attorney General Iver Stridiron, a board member, strongly disagreed. "I am far more optimistic than Darlan Brin," he said, stating his belief that VIPA could handle the project on its own.
"I think the authority has the ability, the staffing, and can do the financing," Stridiron said."In the long run, we can tell our children and our grandchildren, 'We did it ourselves.' We have to be more aggressive. Let's do it!"
However, a motion by Stridiron to have VIPA redevelop the property and lease the new facility to the Customs Service failed. So did a later motion by Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner and board member Dean Plaskett to go with the "turnkey" option.
Both votes provoked heated debate. After Plaskett's motion failed, Pamela Richards, who as Tourism commissioner chairs the board, directed members out of the VIPA conference room and the hearing of news media present, apparently for further discussion.
Reporters challenged the legality of the move, with one reporter following the group as it left the board room. The board members returned without having taken any action.
Other board action
The VIPA board also approved plans for renovation of the U.S. Customs facility on St. John aimed at easing congestion problems with customs clearance on the island. Brin, having already laid the groundwork, was authorized to negotiate with Jerry Frett Construction Services to carry out the work.
"I'm glad the executive director took the bull by the horns and got this project started," board member Robert O'Connor Jr., a St. John resident, said.
The board also approved a proposal to develop a marina in the Charlotte Amalie harbor near the Seaborne Airlines ramp. It voted to issue a Request for Qualifications Proposal inviting contractors to bid on the project. And it authorized Brin to determine whether any potentially harmful materials need to be removed prior to the start of construction work at the site.
Board members attending the meeting were Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood, O'Connor, Plaskett, Richards, Stridiron and James Rogers. Not present was businessman Leslie Milliner.
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