May 2, 2005 – After about a decade in the planning, and endless wrangles with government bureaucracy, Fort Christian, the historical grande dame of St. Thomas and the Virgin Islands, is finally getting the attention she so richly deserves.
Work began Monday on a year-long renovation project announced by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources. A chain link fence has gone up around the perimeter of the fort, except for the south wall facing Veteran's Drive, where a plywood barricade is in place. Workers were painting the plywood the deep red color of the Fort Monday.
Claudette Lewis, DPNR assistant commissioner, has been actively involved for years in trying to move the fort restoration forward. She said Monday, "After almost 10 years, covering two administrations, I'm very happy it's finally happening. It has been a long and tedious process to get to this point. I am hoping by next summer it will be completely operational. It is something we have been waiting for and looking for in countless meetings."
Lewis said the restoration will get a formal nod next Tuesday when Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and other dignitaries tip their hats to the onset of the project during a 10 a.m. ceremony in the Fort's courtyard.
Sen. Louis Hill shared Lewis' good spirits. He said Monday, "I am absolutely thrilled and delighted that the work is getting underway. We deserve no less. I am looking forward to its successful completion."
Hill has made the Fort Christian renovation one of his first priorities since he took office in 2003. It is a project he has followed through the 24th and 25th Legislatures, and in his former post as St. Thomas-Water Island administrator.
At a 2003 Senate hearing of Sen. Louis Hill's Planning and Environmental Protection Committee, preservation activist Edith Woods said the tower was "sitting on its base without any connection to the rest of the structure." She expressed the hope it would be fixed before it fell off. "There is no excuse for this," she said. "It will cost more to replace than fixing it."
The Fort, which dates from 1672, is the oldest structure in continuous use in the Virgin Islands and arguably holds the most historic importance. It has withstood the invasions of European navies and countless hurricanes, but, until now, it has stood defenseless in the face of federal bureaucracy.
Over the centuries it has been used as governor's quarters, place of worship, government office building, prison, courthouse and police station, before being designated a museum in 1971.
Hill said last August that the Federal Highway Administration had finally given its approval for the Fort renovation project, and that bids would go out shortly. This came after more than 18 months of wrangling with FHA officials. (See "Senator: Fort Renovation About to Be Put Out to Bid").
Hill said Monday that technical issues have drawn out the selection of a contractor, even though a bid had been chosen. He said, "The FHA kept asking for all sorts of changes and clarifications, which slowed the process."
At several Legislature meetings, Hill has said the Virgin Islands needs its own FHA representative, "someone who is sensitive to the needs of the territory." He has written to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull asking him to request a representative for the V. I., but, he said last week, "So far the governor has not acted on my request."
Funding for the project comes from a $1.2 million grant from the FHA, and from the Public Finance Authority, which is providing an additional $2 million from the $270 million bond issue in December 2003. Kenneth Mapp, PFA director of finance and administration, said Monday, "The PFA board of directors is intent on providing $2 million for the project."
Dean Plaskett, Planning and Natural Resources commissioner, in a release last week asked the public to observe the new parking restrictions to accommodate the new fencing. No parking is allowed in front of the bollards defining the boundary of the fort, Plaskett said. Vehicles not observing the restrictions will be towed at the owner's expense. Work on the Fort is being done by TipTop Construction, a local firm.
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