March 31, 2006 – People gathered together downtown early Thursday evening, just like the old days, as a dedicated group of community activists christened the first in a series of projects geared to bring downtown back to its former prominence.
Hailing the new Native Arts and Crafts Co-op lodged in the formerly dilapidated V.I. Police forensics building, James Armour, president of the Charlotte Amalie Revitalization Effort (CARE), told the group assembled in the A. H. Riise courtyard that something must be done to save downtown before it is too late.
Armour had a dire warning. "I guaranty you that a year from now, March 30, 2007, St. Martin will be the Caribbean's leading cruise ship port," he said. "St. Martin has revitalized its harbor and shopping area. On St. Croix, Times Square has been renovated, while downtown has shrunk by more than half since the 70s."
"Downtown is half the size it was 40 years ago," he said. "Merchants have said this is the worst season they have had in years, with sales down 25 percent to 30 percent from last year. It is not a pleasant experience. It's up to us to make the change. We can't blame it on the government and play that parlor game. They are fixing Fort Christian and Market Square."
Armour encouraged the crowd to join in CARE's projects. "We've been sleeping. We ourselves, are responsible. It ain't going to happen on its own. We need people to join us, to give us your ideas, your energy, and, if possible, your funding."
CARE is a not-for-profit group founded in 2005, comprising several island activists and businesspeople. The governor's office approached CARE to renovate the forlorn forensics lab building, and various government agencies helped in the $85,000 project.
Alleviation of the downtown parking situation, which keeps many from even trying to shop downtown, is next on the CARE list. "Parking is our number one goal; people don't come downtown because of that."
Construction of a 325-space, three-story parking garage in Charlotte Amalie is planned. Armour said he couldn't reveal the location because negotiations with the property owners are ongoing, but it is on the western side of town. The site has been approved by the Historical Preservation Commission.
This is a "most critical" need for the island, he said. Other projects include landscaping from the airport into town, the joining of historic shopping malls, organization of a Neighborhood Watch program with the taxi industry and the police, and street lamps for Dronningens Gade (Main Street).
Armour's remarks were met with enthusiasm. Articulating the general feeling of good will in the crowd, Lillia King said, "It's good, a magnificent thing they're doing."
Attorney Tom Bolt agreed: "It's absolutely needed. Tourism is the lifeblood of our island, and downtown is the heart of it. This is the first step in working together."
Gazing upstairs at the nearby building, Solicitor General Elliot Mac Davis reminisced, "That's where I had my first job when I was 10 years old delivering St. Thomas This Week," he said. "I hope this is the beginning of the downtown renaissance. It's the island's heart, and it is in need of intensive care."
The arts and crafts coop sits the corner by the old District Court building across from Vendors Plaza on what Armour called "the busiest corner on the island. Everyone passes it," he said.
The new arts and crafts co-op also boasts two public air-conditioned rest rooms, Armour said. The Lottery Commission, which owns the property, has an office in the building. Commission Director Paul Fleming said, "This project shows that a collective effort and vision can get things done."
The building houses the former Elskoe Local Arts and Handicrafts shop, still managed by Dottie Elskoe. Assistant manager Carmen Staley showed intricate crocheted table cloths and bedspreads that are for sale in the shop. The walls are covered in artwork by local painters, including acrylics by Ernestine Bertrand and framed charcoals by Hulda Lewis Joyce. No space is wasted in the relatively small enclosure: Sculptures, jewelry, cards, wooden works and postcards fill the shop.
Armour said every community member is welcome to join CARE. "If you can share your talent or time, join us."
To join, call 774-5203 and ask for Maria Ferreras.
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