The past was front and center at the Fritz Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room Thursday as the Senate approved a pair of nominations for the V.I. Historic Preservation Committee and took the first steps for observing the centennial of the territory’s transfer to U.S. rule.
After debating how to finance the measure, the Senate Committee on Rules and the Judiciary amended, then approved and sent to the full Senate a bill establishing a Centennial Commission to plan for the 100th anniversary of Transfer Day, which will take place in 2017.
Sen. Wayne James, the author of the bill, said the centennial is more than a celebration of the past. It is an economic opportunity for the future, but it must be planned for.
“We have a gold mine before us, and I would suggest we keep it,” he told his colleagues on the committee.
The Transfer Day centennial could put the territory “on the map,” he said, generating interest around the world and unleashing a flood of new tourism.
“Despite the fact that we have been part of America for almost 100 years now ... the average American hasn't heard of us,” he said. “They can't tell you if we're in the Caribbean or the Pacific. They know Jamaica and Cuba ... They do not know the Virgin Islands, not even the educated people. This opportunity before us, the ability to celebrate being part of the greatest nation on Earth, had better not be lost because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
James said in December 1991 he’d gotten a call to help organize the 75th anniversary. Planners were hoping to get both the queen of Denmark and the President to attend the celebrations less than three months away, but it was much too late to try to get on either of their schedules.
“We really messed up on this one,” he said. “We took a diamond opportunity and blew it. We had to scramble at the last minute to pull a whole ceremony together … In the end spent almost a million dollars, going into nothing. We had programs and events and parties, but it didn’t do anything for us.”
James noted that there were no travel magazine spreads on the 75th anniversary events because they tend to have such a long lead time.
“I decided right then, if I am alive to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Transfer Day, I will make sure we do it right,” James said.
While most committee members agreed with him on the idea of planning for the centennial, they expressed concern about the bill’s call for a $10 million budget.
With the the recent world economy still sluggish and the territory’s budget tight, they were unwilling to commit to the price tag.
James had specified that the $10 million would be paid into the commission’s account in installments of half a million to a million at a time, making it easier to absorb in the budget. He also presented figures from other municipalities and states that had held major observances.
Oklahoma spent about $33 million on its 2007 statehood centennial, planning for it for nine years, and reported a $350 million economic impact, according to James’ figures. Jamestown, Va., planned four years for its 400th anniversary, celebrated in 2007, spending almost $10 million, and reported a $1.2 billion economic impact, he said.
But the panel members still gulped at the amount, instead choosing to amend the bill. The measure reported to the full Senate establishes a centennial commission of 13 V.I. residents—five each from St. Croix and St. Thomas, and three from St. John. They will be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The bill enumerates the commission’s powers and duties and specifies how long it will last.
Instead of proposing a specific budget, the amended bill establishes an account in which grants and appropriated and donated money can be deposited, and calls on the commission to submit a budget for the centennial by January 2013.
The committee also approved and passed on to the full Senate two nominees for the V.I. Historic Preservation Committee.
Gerville Larsen, a St. Croix native and architect, is principal owner of the firm Taller Larjas LLC. He was chairman of the committee from 1997 to 2000. He told the committee that “too many of these historic structures built by our highly gifted and skilled African ancestors are in jeopardy.” He suggested the commission should have enforcement powers similar to those of the Coastal Zone Management commission.
Matthias P.H. Eckstein is a contractor who was born in Germany and moved to the United States in 1972. He became involved in historic preservation in Maine, and moved to St. Thomas 19 years ago, after Hurricane Hugo, where he bought a 200-year-old building, which he has been living in and working on ever since. He hopes as a commission member to encourage preservation and restoration of historic buildings.