Aug. 30, 2004 – After more than 18 months of wrangling, Sen. Louis Hill says the Federal Highway Administration has finally given its approval for the Fort Christian renovation project and bids will go out shortly.
The fort, which dates from 1672, is the oldest structure in continuous use in the Virgin Islands and arguably holds the most historic importance. It has withstood invasions of European navies and countless hurricanes, but it has stood defenseless in the face of federal bureaucracy.
After delays threatened to cancel the project, Hill wrote in March to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, Federal Highway Administration official Mary E. Peters and several members of Congress seeking assistance. "The project is too critical to the integrity of our historic district to be stymied by federal bureaucracy," he told them.
Answers to his pleas were not immediate.
At several Legislature meetings Hill has said the Virgin Islands needs its own FHA representative, "someone who is sensitive to the needs of the territory." He has written the federal agency about lack of cooperation from the Puerto Rico office and its territorial representatives.
Testifying before Hill's Planning and Environmental Protection Committee in February, Aloy Nielsen, Public Works Department highway engineering director, said work on the fort could begin within the next two months. That did not happen.
In June, Lubin Quinones, the Highway Administration representative in Puerto Rico responsible for the Virgin Islands, told the Source there had been "misunderstandings," but that they had been resolved and work should proceed soon, possibly later in June. That did not happen.
According to Wystan D. Benjamin, Public Works design/construction program manager, a Highway Administration employee in Puerto Rico was holding up the process. (See "Excuses Abound for Stalled Capital Projects".)
Finally, action is being taken. Hill says that Peters wrote Quinones directing him to "renew his efforts and improve coordination with the territorial agencies." Hill said he invited Quinones to inspect the site, Quinones accepted, and two days later on Aug. 12 — the project was approved. "It will now be advertised for bids," Hill said.
"The Department of Public Works and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources had responded repeatedly to additional requests for information from [the Highway Administration], to no avail," Hill said. "There seemed no end to the frustrations for these two agencies, despite their efforts. We were finally able to resolve the situation when administrator Peters wrote to Quinones."
Quinones wrote Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood on Aug. 12 officially approving the department's plans.
Benjamin said on Monday that the plans are ready for the Property and Procurement Department to put the project out for bid. "The whole process is completed in terms of what the [Highway Administration] has requested," he said. "It should be at P&P this week."
Renovation of the fort has been in the planning for years.
It has long been common knowledge that the east wall of the structure is crumbling. (See "Historic Fort's Crumbling Wall Causes Concerns".) At a Senate committee meeting last August, historic preservationist Edith Woods said the clock tower is "sitting on its base without any connection to the rest of the structure. There is no excuse for this. It will cost more to replace than fixing it."
The fort over the centuries served as the governor's quarters, the seat of government, a place of worship, government offices, a prison, a courthouse and a police station before being designated a public museum in 1971.
In a June 2001 ceremony honoring retiring museum curator Delores Jowers, Claudette Lewis, assistant commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources, said she had encouraging news. She said that $1 million in Federal Highway Trust Fund money earmarked for additional restoration at the museum — money that Jowers fought long and hard to get — "will be moving forward."
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