April 18, 2006 – A new "country marketplace" on St. Thomas would create jobs for residents and allow young entrepreneurs to grow their businesses, Cynthia Jerry, president and chief executive officer of the New Image Foundation, told senators at a Finance Committee meeting Tuesday.
Jerry explained that the facility – which would be constructed next to PriceSmart – would also house business training centers for residents interested in building their own stores, along with stalls for local vendors selling arts, crafts, and food. Adjacent to the marketplace, she said, would be a historic park where indigenous artifacts and ancient remains would be displayed.
Enthused about the idea, senators unanimously voted to approve the grant application, which will now move on to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for final grant approval.
She explained that funding for the facility would be obtained through loans and private investments, and that a $50,000 federal grant – whose application appeared before the committee for approval Tuesday – would provide technical assistance to vendors, along with business counseling and customized training.
Impressed with the proposal, senators had few questions for Jerry but asked whether a delay in submitting the grant application – which was supposed to have been sent in by March 1 – would affect the approval of the funds by the federal government. Jerry said it would not.
Senators were more cautious, however, when considering a lease agreement between the V.I. government and Walter Seipel and Associates, noting that several calls coming from community members alleged that Seipel was discriminatory when deciding whether or not to grant sub-leases to prospective tenants. "We heard that only 20 percent of the building was sub-leased, and that locals aren't able to get in," Sen. Roosevelt C. David said.
Senators also said community members were complaining that the building owned by Seipel in Sub Base was not properly maintained or "aesthetically pleasing" to residents in the area.
Seipel – who owns the building but not the land on which the building sits – said that since his lease with the government expired in March 2004, he did not feel comfortable granting sub-leases to tenants without having signed a master lease agreement. When asked, he said that prior to the expiration of the government lease, he also did not feel comfortable signing onto sub-leases for tenants without being able to set a standard timeframe.
Seipel added that he does not discriminate against prospective tenants. "Once we receive the new lease, then we'd be happy to entertain anyone who's interested in renting part of the building," he said.
On the issue of regular maintenance, Seipel said that he had once rented out most of the building's bottom level to a tenant who offered to paint the exterior of the building. "I told him I didn't have the money to paint the building at the time, and he offered to do it himself," he explained, adding that the tenant subsequently did not pay $30,000 worth of rent and left the building unpainted.
"That money was never seen, and that's part of the reason why we couldn't pay for improvements to the building," Seipel said. Seipel's attorney, Derek Hodge, added that provisions outlining specific repairs to the building were incorporated into the lease.
Representing the Department of Property and Procurement, attorney Lynn Millin said that once the repairs are completed, the rent per square foot on the land would increase from $657.41 per month to $1000 per month. Additionally, the building would be turned over to the government upon the expiration of the lease, which is set at 30 years with two 5-year options to renew.
At the end of the discussion, David, along with Sens. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill and Norman Jn Baptiste voted in favor of the lease, while Sens. Neville James and Usie R. Richards voted against it.
Senators also approved:
–a 40-year lease agreement between the government and Hill's Plumbing, with two five-year options to renew at a yearly rate of $9,218.
–a 20-year lease agreement between the government and St. John Animal Care Center, with two five-year options to renew at a yearly rate of $5,227.75.
–a 15-year lease agreement between the government and Big D's, with five five-year options to renew at a yearly rate of $30,872 (the agreement is for the operation of a bar and restaurant on the site formerly known as Manno's in the Fort Christian Parking Lot on St. Thomas).
All Finance Committee members were present at Tuesday's meeting, along with non-member Sen. Liston Davis.
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