June 19, 2003 – The sky was ominously gray but the occasion was festively sunny as government officials in silvery hard hats turned the ceremonial shovelfuls of dirt at Crown Bay on Thursday morning.
The occasion heralded the official start of construction on the Port Authority's Crown Bay Cruise Ship Facility, a project more than two decades in the making. Officials estimate the dock expansion and shopping development will be completed in June of next year.
Speakers held forth at a bandstand next to a large, decorative sign describing the project and giving its completion date as April 20, 2004.
The project's history has been like that fraught with contradictions. Legal, environmental and logistical issues impeded its progress from the time that the Crown Bay Master Plan was unveiled in 1983.
A recent tug-of-war was between VIPA and The West Indian Co. over which would manage the development. Fifteen months ago, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull instructed them to develop it jointly after abruptly calling a halt to VIPA's agreement with two cruise lines to expand the dock and develop the commercial facility. Instead, VIPA resolved to do the project on its own. (See "Crown Bay expansion project is under way".)
In August 2001, VIPA signed a letter of intent with Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises for the two companies to invest a total of $31 million in expanding the dock and developing an adjacent shopping area. The plan sparked protests from the business community, which feared the loss of customers downtown and at Havensight Mall, and from WICO, which saw it giving the two cruise lines, which would have berthing priority at Crown Bay, control of the St. Thomas harbor. In March 2002, the governor called the deal off.
Since then, VIPA has been moving forward. American Bridge Co., an Orlando, Florida, construction firm, commenced work in January.
Attorney General Iver Stridiron, a VIPA board member, conducted Thursday's ground-breaking ceremony, incorporating a bit of humor about the governor's decision to call off the cruise ship deal. Stridiron and Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards, who by virtue of that position chairs the VIPA board, had favored the cruise ship arrangement.
"We came close to being fired," Stridiron said.
Addressing the crowd, Turnbull confirmed Stridiron's remarks. "I told them it was my way or they could go home," he said.
Turnbull said he is "excited" about the West Indian elements of the proposed design of the shopping complex being developed adjacent to the expanded dock. It is to have a sugar mill replica at its center, which the governor, a history professor, said would "preserve the history of the Virgin Islands."
Many government officials spoke at Thursday's ceremony, but there were two vacant chairs crying to be occupied. Notable by their absence were Gordon Finch, VIPA executive director from 1991 until last year, and his successor, Darlan Brin, whose previous position was as the Port Authority's lead planner. Finch was off-island, a spokesperson said, while Brin was expected but did not appear.
Both men played key roles in bringing the project to fruition. For Finch, an engineer, the Crown Bay development was probably the highest-profile project on his desk for three years. Brin, a 20-year veteran of the authority as chief planner, worked with Finch intensely both on the Crown Bay project and on St. John's Enighed Pond commercial port project. Official ground breaking for the Enighed Pond facility three decades in the making took place last week.
The Crown Bay dock, currently 200 feet in length on one side and 500 feet on the other, is being expanded to a length of more than 900 feet on both sides. This will allow some of the largest cruise vessels in use and under construction to berth at Crown Bay, VIPA officials said.
The land development is of a "mixed-use facility" that is "to be utilized for commercial purposes." Situated on six acres, it will total about 57,000 square feet. Occupying some 3,500 square feet of the complex will be a combined visitor center and "environmental/historical interpretive resources center" to be operated by the Tourism and Planning and Natural Resources Departments.
The Port Authority plans to lease 60 percent of the available commercial space to businesses serving local residents and the other 40 percent to businesses serving visitors, Richards said Thursday. She described the design plans, which call for a village-type setting with West Indian architecture, a waterfront promenade and the replica of a sugar mill. The commercial mix is to include a variety of restaurants, a communications center and a crew-service facility. There will be off-street parking at the site.
Other officials attending the ceremony included Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards and Sen. Lorraine Berry, both of whom were members of the Cruise Ship Task Force in the 23rd Legislature; Brian Petersen, American Bridge Co. vice president; and Alfred Lloyd, WICO director of operations.
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