May 3, 2004 – Residents, conservationists, cultural preservationists, historians and government officials flocked up the hill on Monday morning to a graceful home which sits like a beacon keeping watch over Salt River Bay. The occasion was the official opening of the Salt River National Park Visitor Center.
Ownership of the former private residence passed from Dr. Peter Kumpitch and his wife, Joan, to the Virgin Islands National Park system, thanks to the efforts of Delegate Donna M. Christensen and a partnership with the national Trust for Public Land.
"This is just a very good acquisition, V.I. Park Superintendent Joel Tutein said of the 8.5-acre property. National Park Service officials "saw the location and were sold on the idea," he said. "We could not have done it without the tremendous support from the delegate, Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards, the Department of Interior and the Trust for Public Land."
"The journey" started in 1999, Tutein said, when the Kumpitches approached him with the idea of the park system rather than a private developer — acquiring the home. An aggressive campaign to make it happen began in 2000. In March, after lengthy debate, Congress approved NPS purchase of the property for $2.2 million. In the meantime, the Trust for Public Land put up money to secure the sale. (See "Salt River visitor center opens".)
Tutein joked that Kumpitch, a St. Croix optometrist, had been very quiet and humble during the acquisition process. "He would not let us evict him by eminent domain," Tutein said.
For his part, Kumpitch told Monday's audience of more than a hundred persons: "We never locked the doors and never had keys for 25 years. We have never had theft, robbery or evil here."
He said a historian once told him that more than a thousand years ago the indigenous amerindians considered the area blessed ground. He said he feels that their ancestors protected his home and brought his family prosperity that were obligated to share with others.
"As a family we are very pleased to transfer this property," Kumpitch said.
Will Rogers of the Trust for Public Land told the gathering that over the last 30 years his agency has supported 2,700 acquisition projects that include parks, recreational areas and historical places.
"We don't exist without partnerships," Rogers said. "We couldn't be happier to be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat in tough economic times." He also said Christensen's efforts speak to her leadership and thanked the family of Caroline Gasperi for their offer to have their 2,200-acre Castle Nugent Farms property on St. Croix's southeast shore become part of the federal park system. (See "Castle Nugent Farms seeking park status".)
"It is going to take many steps," he said of the Gasperi land acquisition. "It is one of the most beautiful settings you can see." He said the project will invigorate the economy of St. Croix as the V.I. National Park has done for St. John.
John Garrison, former president of Friends of the V.I. National Park, is now with the Trust for Public Land. "We played a role in putting a very important and sensitive piece of land into acquisition," he said referring to the Salt River project. The process was tedious, he said, involving the need of congressional approval for an expansion of the park's boundaries.
"It's a really special day as we celebrate the preservation of the heart of Salt River National Park," Christensen said. She noted that other park projects are under consideration, some with the National Park Service and others for the planned territorial park system.
Richards was a member of the commission which made recommendations on how the lands and waters within the Salt River National Park should be jointly managed by the federal and V.I. governments. He said on Monday that he had a deep feeling of joy when he sang the opening words of the "Virgin Islands March":
"All hail our Virgin Islands.
Em'ralds of the sea,
Where beaches bright with coral sand
And trade winds bless our native land."
"That song is applicable to what we are doing here today," Richards said. "I think it is fitting that we pay tribute to Mr. and Mrs. Kumpitch. This is part of economic development. There are many things that have begun, and what stands in the way are personalities." He said partnerships are the key to progress: "It is incredibly necessary for us to come together in support of St. Croix."
Island Administrator Gregory Francis said the visitor center will be a boost for St. Croix's tourism package. "It's something good for St. Croix and the Virgin Islands as a whole," he said. "All we need to do is expand on the history here."
Guests toured the two-story, 5,800-square-foot structure and mingled poolside, enjoying the vista of foaming waves curling over a coral reef while also savoring West Indian delicacies and the quelbe sounds of Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights.
University of the Virgin Islands President LaVerne Ragster; Patricia Hooks, National Park Service Southeast Region director; and U.S. Attorney David Nissman were among the other dignitaries on hand. Also recognized were Gasperi, CHANT (Cultural Heritage and Nature Tourism), Farmers in Action, the St. Croix Environmental Association, the St. Croix Archaeological Society, and local and visiting National Park Service personnel.
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