Feb. 10, 2004 – Sen. Louis Hill pressed an assortment of government officials on Tuesday in an effort to find out why various capital projects in the territory — especially the Fort Christian Museum and Rothschild Francis "Market" Square renovations — have not moved forward.
"The plans for Fort Christian have been in place since January a year ago; we have the money; but it's not happening," Hill said. "What is wrong?"
He found out. The culprit in most cases is the bottleneck created by the government's procurement system. In other instances, it's a matter of communication and cooperation with federal highway officials. And there is sometimes conflicting information between departments.
Testifying before Hill's Planning and Environmental Protection Committee, Aloy Nielsen, the Public Works Department's highway engineering director, said work on the fort could begin within the next two months.
"But that was supposed to happen a year ago," Hill pointed out.
As a freshman senator last year, Hill made getting the Fort Christian renovation moving one of his first priorities. It's a project he had worked on in his former post as St. Thomas-Water Island administrator.
Nielsen said the project "should go out to bid in a couple weeks." He said one problem was where to house the staff while the construction work was under way. He said "it was decided to use a trailer on the premises."
But according to Claudette Lewis, Planning and Natural Resources assistant commissioner, "it was decided last October to move to an office." The exchange during the day's testimony was indicative of an apparent lack communication between certain government agencies.
Lewis, who has been involved in the fort restoration for years, said the project delays went back much farther than a year. "It's closer to six years ago," she said.
Myron Jackson, director of DPNR's Historic Preservation Office, said he has been involved for the last year in preparations and putting policies in place to affect the surrounding area. "We designate specific areas for landmark," he said. "The governor signed a boundary agreement with the [Fire Service] and Public Works and the Carnival Committee last year about the public parking structure."
There is an urgency to get the work going, those testifying agreed. The fort is crumbling on its east side, and the clock tower is in a precarious state, Nielsen said. At a committee hearing Hill held last August, preservation activist Edith Woods said the tower was "sitting on its base without any connection to the rest of the structure. There is no excuse for this. It will cost more to replace than fixing it."
Federal official blamed for delays
Wystan D. Benjamin, Public Works design/construction program manager, and Nielsen detailed problems they said they experience dealing with a Federal Highway Administration employee they accused of holding up the process. Both said Sam Herrera, FHA territorial representative in Puerto Rico, was to blame for needless delays. (They did not name the employee in testimony, but identified him later, when asked.)
Benjamin and Nielsen said Herrera has held up efforts to deal with lead in the fort's paint, among other things, refusing to accept the consultant reports Benjamin had submitted.
Benjamin said test results showed that the only lead-based paint in the fort was in one room. "He (Herrera) questioned whether the consultant was qualified," Benjamin said on Tuesday. "He just kept hanging on to this issue."
Nielsen said Herrera "had more than ample evidence. It's just this one guy."
Sen. Roosevelt David asked why Nielsen hadn't done something about the problem. Nielsen said he was going to talk to his division chair about it.
Hill was incredulous. "You should have spoken to the division chair six months ago," he replied. "This is ridiculous."
Nielsen said the territory needs its own FHA representative, not one based in Puerto Rico.
"Have you spoken to the governor or the delegate about this?" Hill asked.
Sen. Ronald Russell asked again about the lead paint issue. Nielsen said the federal highways official had issued a order to sandblast all paint from the exterior of the building. He added, "Now, we'll have to go over his head."
Helen Gjessing, testifying as a private citizen, detailed the long years the fort renovation has been in the works. "My husband, Fred, worked for years to get this going," she said. "It's the most prominent building standing, but it won't be standing much longer. This delay is criminal."
Bungalow, Market Square standstills
Hill then turned to the renovation of Market Square and the restoration of the Sanderilla Thomas Bungalow. The structure's roof collapsed when a truck hit the bungalow last April 15.
"It's at least five years since the start of the Market Square project," Hill said. "I hoped the collapse of the bungalow would speed it up. It's urgent. The roof is sitting in storage in a building in the Sub Base."
He persisted: "What is wrong? It is a great historic treasure. We have the dollars; it is needed. What's going on?"
Hill continued: "Main Street is shrinking. The whole area is so unsightly. It's of vital economic importance. What is it? Is it a lack of will? Are our systems so outdated that it strangles out ability? Is it voodoo?"
James O 'Bryan, St. Thomas and Water Island administrator and head of the Market Square task force, said the group, too, has encountered stumbling blocks. "We met three weeks ago," he said. "With the scope of work, it's slow and tedious, and we want to do it right."
O 'Bryan explained the process at length, underscoring the government's lack of manpower. He detailed problems with federal funding and with trying to combine the bungalow renovation within the overall Market Square restoration project — which, it turned out, cannot be done under federal funding guidelines.
Benjamin said there were "major problems" with the Property and Procurement Department concerning local funding for the Market Square project. "We have the plans and specs for sewer lines, but it's problems with that department," he said. "I don't think they even read our letters. We tried to get to their legal counsel, and we got a very disturbing letter back. It's not going anywhere."
"And it's taken a year," Hill said. "It's amazing, just amazing. I'm becoming very … I don't know if this project will ever be completed."
Hill noted that Chaneel Callwood-Daniels, Yssis Group architect in charge of the Market Square project, who had been invited to testify at the hearing, did not appear.
Completion targeted nearly two years ago
In August 2001, the Historic Preservation Office held the first of three town meetings to discuss the Market Square rehabilitation project. Those who turned out at the Savan Community Center were told that the work would begin about four months later and take some six months to complete. (See the St. Thomas Source report "Market Square rehab to begin in 4 months".)
O'Bryan on Tuesday cited what he termed the government's lack of manpower.
Hill said, "If we have $100 million in the pipeline for capital projects, I'd think we'd move personnel to departments where they're needed, like Property and Procurement. We need to think about lateral transfers."
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said: "We need to all get together. There's no comprehensive plan. We need Property and Procurement reform."
Hill agreed, saying: "This has gone on absolut
ely too long. We've talked for years about this. I hope it is something the 25th Legislature can do."
Malone said he is putting it on the agenda of his Government Operations Committee.
Kenneth Mapp, Public Finance Authority director of finance and administration, detailed plans for the use of $15 million from recent bonds for historic restoration, which he said Gov. Charles W. Turnbull "is spearheading." Mapp said the money will be used in two ways — for maintenance and repair, and for full renovation.
When Hill didn't hear the Market Square renovation included in the list Mapp presented, he said: "Please ask the governor to put the bungalow on the list as a priority."
"That won't take much urging," Mapp replied.
At the end of the day, Hill expressed the hope that he would see work begin on Fort Christian in the next two months.
Minor CZM permit denied
In other action, the committee voted down a minor Coastal Zone Management permit for DPNR's Fish and Wildlife Division. The vote was based on a ruling by legislative legal counsel Yvonne Tharpes that the permit doesn't allow dredging.
DPNR attorney Julita deLeon said dredging was not the issue. She said "maintenance dredging is an ongoing process in the area and has nothing to do with the permit."
Committee members attending the meeting were Sens. David, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Hill, Malone and Russell. Sens. Carlton Dowe and Almando "Rocky" Liburd were absent. Also present was Sen. Luther Renee, who is not a member of the committee.
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