A series of public meetings held on St. Thomas during the last week have opened up a dialogue between the government and V.I. residents about the potential development of the Long Path/Garden Street area and the promotion of more local businesses.
The public meeting was hosted by the V.I. Economic Development Authority’s Enterprise Zone Commission and wrapped up Tuesday with a final discussion on economic development opportunities in the area. Local residents said they would like to see everything from sports shops to hubs for local artists and museums that would display their work.
Nadine Marchena-Kean, the commission director, said her enterprise zone program allows for business owners within the area to receive exemptions on gross receipts, property and excise taxes, while the EDA’s other components – such as the Government Development Bank and Small Business Development Agency – help fund the establishment of new facilities and programs.
According to the EZC mission statement, the purpose of the commission is to revive "blighted and distressed" communities that were once considered "socially and economically vibrant."
Many of the 50 or so residents that came out for Tuesday night’s meeting recalled some of the highlights of the neighborhood, such as sweet shops, that had closed down years ago. There was a general call for businesses that sold more local produce, delicacies, cakes, pies and popular pastries.
Vinod Daswani, the interim head of All Saints Cathedral School, said there was demand from residents and visitors for activities that highlighted historic attractions, such as the school’s cathedral and the St. Thomas Synagogue.
Remarks were heard from a selection of panelists, including Albert Bryan Jr. from the Economic Development Commission, who suggested that residents could restore some of the older abandoned properties in the area using modern interior design techniques and sell them, creating a booming housing market that would draw in a younger crowd.
Bryan’s suggestion drew repeated comments from members in the audience who said that they would like to see more activities in the area, especially at night when there is virtually nothing to do downtown. But many in the audience also said that setting up businesses such as nightclubs and bars could lead to an increase in crime.
"Right now, I am fearful for my guests because the area is so deserted in the evenings," said Angela Rawlins, proprietor of the Bunker Hill Hotel. Rawlins described the area as "iffy," especially at night when there is no one around and the streets are not well lit.
Marchena-Kean said residents attending previous meetings had suggested forming a partnership with police and helping them to really know the neighborhood, its streets and its residents.
EDA Executive Director Percival Clouden said that bringing more businesses into the area would add to the security of the residents, particularly at night when there are more people around.
Business owners on Tuesday said they were concerned about paying higher and higher utility bills. Rawlins said, for example, she pays $5,000 a month in electricity, even if there is only one guest at the hotel. Costs such as these put a "stranglehold" on residents and make it a struggle to survive, she said.
Marchena-Kean said after the meeting that what is important right now is getting the community’s input on what it would like the neighborhood to look like.
While there are residents that might vote for it to stay more residential, Clouden added there would have to be a balance between creating businesses that cater more to tourists with providing services (such as grocery stores and parking) for residents living in the neighborhood.