Department of Interior Assistant Secretary for the Insular Affairs Anthony Babauta formally announced five important new federal grants awarded to the territory during meetings with Gov. John deJongh Jr., Delegate Donna Christensen, and top V.I. Officials, according to Government House and Christensen's office.
Babauta made the announcements, confirming two Capital Improvement Project grants and three Technical Assistance grants, at the start of a scheduled Interagency Group on Insular Areas annual meeting.
“Secretary Babauta informed us that we will receive grants to complete important construction projects in Christiansted and Charlotte Amalie that will remake those areas as more desirable attractions for the thousands of tourists who visit them every day," deJongh said in a statement.
These grants will also promote economic development of the historic and tourism districts in both St. Thomas and St. Croix, he said. The territory also received three grants to improve the functions of the Department of Health, Internal Revenue Bureau, and the Virgin Islands National Park on Hassel Island, deJongh said.
The Capital Improvement Project grants include $1 million for restoration of the Christiansted Boardwalk and $1 million for the Charlotte Amalie Main Street Enhancement Project. The Charlotte Amalie project is part of a larger, more comprehensive deJongh administration effort to revitalize downtown St. Thomas.
Public Works will be overseeing efforts to revitalize the Christiansted Boardwalk by repairing damage from recent tropical storms and general deterioration, deJongh said in the statement. The project has already secured funding for boardwalk lighting through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided assistance to repair storm-damaged areas of the boardwalk.
The Department of Public Works has already started work on the comprehensive project in downtown St. Thomas with a focus on the reconstruction of Main Street, and the second phase should commence next year, according to Government House. The plan involves dramatically remaking the St. Thomas shopping district by improving infrastructure and landscaping. The million dollars will enable Public Works to extend work from both phases of the project onto the district's side streets.
The first of the Technical Assistance Program grants includes $418,000 to develop and implement a central cancer registry for the Virgin Islands and another $27,000 to automate the Department of Health's board licensing, credentialing and renewal processes.
Word of the cancer registry grant was greeted enthusiastically by the Department of Health. “This is terrific news for us as this means we can take the first steps toward the creation of a cancer registry,” said Health Commissioner Mercedes Dullum. “Once this system is in place, we will be reaching out to healthcare providers to remind them that the reporting of cancer incidences and mortality is mandated by law.” The Department currently requests such information on its VI Notifiable Disease Form, which can be downloaded via its website www.healthvi.org, according to the Health Department.
The second TAP grant of $175,000 will go to the Bureau of Internal Revenue, completing the total amount needed to transfer the excise tax program onto an advanced computer system. The project had already obtained $350,000 in funding, but needed this most-recent grant to match the price of the successful bidder, according to Government House. Once complete, the new system is meant to remedy problems involving revenue collection recently cited in an Inspector General report.
The final TAP grant of $198,000 will go toward helping document Napoleonic War harbor defenses on Hassel Island, attracting more tourists to the historic National Park in the Charlotte Amalie harbor.
"The territories are extremely important to the United States and to the president," said Secretary Salazar. "They are of strategic importance and we have a major stake in making sure that they are strong." Director Agnew pledged his willingness to work with the territories, especially those like the Virgin Islands and American Samoa that are going through difficult economic times.
At the same meeting, Christensen asked Commerce officials if the Hovensa closing and aftermath will qualify the Virgin Islands for an economic disaster declaration.
"I know that is what the car industry got, and while this is on a smaller scale, for our territory with its 110,000 population to lose over 2,000 jobs and its main supplier of energy, it is an economic disaster," Christensen said in a statement. According to Christensen, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for the Economic Development Administration John Fernandez replied that access to their programming would be tantamount to a declaration, but Christensen said that she would pursue the idea further as it would open up funding from other departments and agencies as well.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at the meeting the territories are extremely important to the United States and to President Barack Obama, according to Government House and Christensen. "They are of strategic importance and we have a major stake in making sure that they are strong," Salazar said, according to both offices.