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Civic Center Proposal Given a Boost

Dec. 1, 2004 –– A civic and cultural center is in the works for St. John.
Reliance Housing Corp., which is building Bellevue Village affordable housing on Gifft Hill, is donating two-and-a-half acres of land to the St. John Community Foundation for a civic and cultural center.
"This is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to us," organization President Lonnie Willis said Wednesday.
Reliance will turn over the deed to the property to the Community Foundation Saturday.
Robert O. Jackson, Reliance Housing president, was in transit to the Virgin Islands and could not be reached for comment. His organization also sold land at a low cost to the St. John School on Gifft Hill for a new school. Ground broke on that project Monday.
Both the St. John Community Foundation and St. John School land abut the Bellevue Village housing.
St. John Administrator Julien Harley enthusiastically praised the Community Foundation for its efforts.
"I'm glad somebody has taken up the ball and run with it," he said.
He said there has long been a need for a civic and cultural center. Currently groups rent the Westin Resort and Villas ballroom when the event is large enough and hold smaller events at restaurants or wherever they can cadge space.
St. John Community Foundation Director Carole DeSenne envisions plays, family reunions, graduations and more will be held at the center.
In addition to the civic and cultural center, the organization plans a park with a botanical garden, an amphitheater and an historical interpretive center.
The project is still in the preliminary planning stages with no time frame for construction.
"We have to go out and look for money to build it," DeSenne said.
She said she's already gotten in touch with philanthropic foundations to help with the cost, but the organization faces major fund-raising efforts. Willis said she hopes to recruit volunteer with the necessary skills to put the project together.
Neither Willis nor DeSenne had accurate estimates of the final costs, but Willis said it would be built in phases.
DeSenne said Jackson has promised to run the utility lines from Bellevue Village to the civic and cultural center property boundary. This will facilitate hooking up the center when the time comes.
Willis said the location, which is on the western end of the island but close to mid-island, will help keep the island together.
"And this really will make a difference in interaction among groups of people," Willis said.
The civic and cultural center project represents a big step forward for the St. John Community Foundation. The foundation has nine board members and a one-person staff. That slot is filled by DeSenne.
The organization runs Dial-A-Ride and the St. John Apartments. A foundation committee is developing a proposal for an island council.
Willis said there are three vacancies on the board that need filling.
"But you have to start somewhere, and this is a tremendous start," Willis said.
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