May 23, 2006 – On a day in May with no ships "in," Havensight Mall is bustling. Tourists from local hotels and inns walk out of shops carrying packages, while "locals" move from grocery store to post office to book store to gift shops.
Havensight Mall, at an 11.5 percent return on investment, is the Government Employees Retirement System's best investment, says Edward Thomas, mall overseer and president and CEO of the West Indian Co. Ltd.
But Havensight is only one of the pieces of a growing complex that is burgeoning on the eastern end of Charlotte Amalie Harbor.
The numerous projects in progress and on the drawing board hold the promise of economic growth and heightened morale in the community.
Most recently,Thomas announced the company has put out a request for proposals to develop the land south of the WICO offices, known as Liverpool, for long- and short-term residential rental units.
Thomas said the idea happened at a board meeting: "After Carifest fell apart, the corporate board thought about what to do with the property." That aforementioned tract is 9 acres of land that was once home to the original Antilles School. Of the 9 acres, 7.5 are available for the development. The other 1.5 acres house three storage tanks – one of which has been dismantled. Carifest, a proposed combination cultural park and amusement center, had held the lease for years. At the annual board meeting Thomas announced WICO had severed the relationship.
Thomas said with all the development going on at the other side of the property – namely the Yacht Haven Grande project, which is expected to employ 600 to 700 people; coupled with the newly opened Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute, which is expected to bring patients from off-island for treatment, less than a mile away – it was time to rethink the use of the land.
"Maybe it's no longer an entertainment complex we need," Thomas said in a recent interview about the various projects in the works on the property he manages.
Thomas talked about family members visiting cancer patients at the center and the added hardship they face, forced to pay the high cost of hotel rooms on St. Thomas. He thought some of the proposed dwelling units could be slated for short-term rental to those patients and families.
Thomas said the board suggested the area be used for 100 units in which WICO would be an investment partner. Thomas said neither he nor the board members have any preconceived notion about how the property or the partnership would work. That's why he and the board have asked for proposals.
"Everyone is not necessarily thinking the way we are thinking," he said. "We may know what we would like to see; the developers may come back with their own ideas."
He is sure though when he says, "We [WICO] want to be an investor." He says the deal could be a 50-50 investment, or the developer could build for a fee and be reimbursed by WICO, or some other configuration. But, he added, "Our company wants to have an equity position."
Thomas also wants to be an employer. The project will create jobs, and he says that's what WICO is all about. "Everything we do should create a job," he says. "Everything we do we see as economic development of the V.I."
Moving north along the coastline not far from Liverpool, three new projects are either underway or in process.
The area where one of the storage tanks was taken down has been designated for a butterfly farm, Thomas says with a smile – obviously delighted with the prospect. It will be an attraction for tourist and locals alike, he says. It only awaits some permitting for work to begin, according to Thomas.
The butterfly farm idea came from Antigua, where Thomas said they have one.
Also adjacent to the southern end of the dock, work is well underway on a crew club. The mega-yachts expected to be drawn to the new marina at the northern end of the property will arrive with lots of crew members – adding to the numbers of crew that arrive daily on the cruise ships.
The club is being developed by Abe Terapani, an executive of Diamonds International. "We felt a need to give activities and a centralized location for crew members," Terapani said, adding there were still many details to work out about the club.
The 10,000-square-foot structure will include a bar, big screen TVs, Internet connections and other activities, according to Thomas. An additional 10,000 square feet outside the club will include a swimming pool and basketball court. WICO is the landlord on this project.
However, not too far away, construction will soon begin on a exclusive WICO project – a 125-foot dock extension that will accommodate the new Freedom class cruise ships .
Thomas explained the extension will be like a bridge from the end of the current dock to the berthing dolphin to allow the new 1,112-foot vessels to open their forward doors, allowing passengers to disembark from two different locations. With the capacity of the new ships reaching toward 4,000 passengers, Thomas said it would be a nightmare trying to get them on and off using only one entry point.
The Royal Caribbean Freedom of the Seas is already commissioned. The Liberty comes out next year, Thomas said. The Freedom will make its inaugural call on St. Thomas May 9, 2007.
And WICO will be ready, Thomas says.
At the opposite end of the WICO property, the Yacht Haven Grande is nearing completion of phase one of the development that is expected to kick off in early autumn with the opening of the completely rebuilt 50-slip marina, to be followed by year's end with the opening of the 80,000-square-foot retail and restaurant section.
On a recent visit to the stunning corporate offices that directly face the project, John Stadler, general manager of development services for Yacht Haven Grande, was effusive about how the project is moving along. He happily pulled out architectural drawings and chatted about the water feature that will be built at the entrance to the project from the WICO cruise ship dock.
Lorna Thomas, YHG assistant manager for leasing and special projects, showed off the architectural model, which occupies a room all by itself. "It's our pride and joy," she says.
On the eastern side of Havensight Mall, Thomas expects some upheaval for awhile as the roadway that hugs the property is widened. The long-anticipated project is expected to start in November.
WICO has already moved one of the tenants whose space would have impinged upon the new roadway. Scotia Bank recently opened its new office at the other end of the section closest to Port of Sale mall. Thomas said Dockside Bookstore will be the beneficiary in the bank's relocation as they will get another bay left behind when the bank moved.
When completed, the four-lane road, which starts about halfway down the hill between the old WICO offices and the gatehouse and runs through Mandela Circle and west to the Lover's Lane intersection, will alleviate the heavy traffic jams that regularly tie up motorists coming and going into Havensight via the circle. The project will take part of the mall parking lot as well.
The work is expected to take 18 months.
Thomas says he's concerned about the Havensight tenants and plans to do his best to make it easy on them. WICO manages the mall for GERS. Thomas recently signed a new management contract.
The road widening is not the only change in the wind for the tenants, many of whom close up shop when there are no ships at the WICO dock. Starting this summer the stores will be required to stay open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on days when there are no ships. On the up side, with some of the itinerary changes, some ships coming out of East Coast ports will be staying in port late. On those days the stores will be required to stay open until 7 p.m. On Sundays, if there are no ships, the shops are free to close.
Thomas is adamant that as a major retail mall, the merchants have a responsib
ility to the overnight guests and local residents.
The other thing he is adamant about is that it's time for a "true partnership" with the cruise lines.
The Cruise Ship Long Term Operating Agreement expired the end of April. It was executed five years ago without the $3.50 increased head tax some were hoping for at the time. In exchange for not implementing the tax, the cruise lines promised to increase ship calls – especially to St. Croix. It didn't happen.
Either way Thomas says it's time for the increase. He said in the 12 years since he took over the WICO helm the $7.50 head tax has remained the same. "We feel the time has come for a true partnership," he says. "They make their money here." He says the Virgin Islands and his company have borne the responsibility for creating the infrastructure to accommodate some two million cruise ship passengers a year. "The time has come when they can share some of their profits."
All in all, Thomas is pretty happy with the activities taking place in Havensight. He is especially pleased about Yacht Haven Grande, which has taken a property derelict for more than a decade and turned it into a high-end yacht basin, which will eventually house million-dollar condominiums, fine restaurants and a state-of-the-art yacht club.
Glancing toward the project rising above the surrounding construction fencing, he remarks, "I feel very proud to have had a hand in bringing this to fruition."
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.