May 19, 2009 — While government officials laid out plans Tuesday for revamping Coki Point Beach at a St. Thomas Coastal Zone Management Committee meeting, vendors in the area begged them to reconsider and incorporate some of their ideas into the proposal.
Plans to build a boardwalk and new vendors area at the beach have been in the works since 2004, architect Stacy Bourne said. Since an initial pre-CZM hearing in January 2006, meetings have been held with various community groups, the State Historic Preservation Office, Coral World, and one year ago, the vendors.
At least a year was spent addressing all the concerns and seeing what could be added to the project, she said. Construction costs are projected to run around $1.5 million, with $500,000 coming from the Public Finance Authority and the remaining $1 million from other government sources.
"The vendors wanted to have a more permanent place, instead of having to move everyday," Bourne said. The project includes building 11 vendor kiosks on the boardwalk made from pre-fabricated aluminum panels, measuring 12 by 12 feet and equipped with potable water, electrical service and telephone.
Spearheaded by the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation, the project also calls for, among other things, additional parking near the graveyard for taxis and vendors and a complete overhaul of the existing restroom, turning it into a bathhouse with lockers, showers, changing rooms and bathrooms.
The boardwalk and bathhouse will be on the same level, allowing for handicap accessibility and protection from the waves during a Category 5 hurricane, Bourne said.
"One of the goals was, visually, when come up over the hill to Coki Beach, most everything that's in your view is what we wanted to improve," she added.
Vendors will be asked to relocate during construction. A wooden platform, set up near the Coki Point Beach road, has already been built, Parks and Recreation officials said Tuesday. Meanwhile, barricades will be set up around the construction site to prevent runoff and erosion, along with giving construction vehicles a contained area in which to refuel and repair equipment.
While agreeing with the intent of the project — no one denied Tuesday that Coki Point is in need of improvement — many vendors said moving to the platform would put them at the end of the beach where no one could see them. Setting up the construction barricades would further isolate them from the beachgoers that frequent the stalls, possibly cutting down their earnings to as low as $10 a day, some said.
An alternate plan for a more courtyard-like structure with a row of five stores, an outside bar, area for mobile businesses and the addition of a dock across the street for a jet-ski operation was presented by Coki Point vendor Donna Berry-Riley. The point of the project is to promote cultural heritage tourism, giving visitors to the island a chance to interact with local people, sample local cuisine and learn about native crafts, she said.
"Much more can be accomplished by us working together, than each side working alone," she said. "The government has failed in the past to have an effective working relationship — they've made decisions without considering our ideas."
The proposed spots are also too small, she added, suggesting that the vendor spots be upgraded to 12 by 17 feet.
Meanwhile, the back and forth between the government and vendors is already affecting Coral World itself. At least one or two vendors have refused to move to the platform, setting up shop on Coral World property and blocking the entrance to the marine park with their cars, said Trudie Prior, Coral World's president and general manager.
"This is an untenable situation that has created a disaster for us," she said, asking for support from the government and CZM committee in enforcing the mandate for vendors to move to the platform. Earlier in the hearing, CZM committee members approved Coral World's permit to build a habitat and display pool for eight sea lions, along with holding and life support pens.
Coral World won't survive financially, Prior said, if their project doesn't get off the ground, but they also won't move forward if the government doesn't give them some immediate support. The plan also includes the expansion of the existing facility, the resurfacing of the rear parking lot and roadway along Water Bay and the construction of a security hut at Coral World's entrance.
"We have lost money year after year at Coral World," Prior said. "We have barkers that bring business from the beach to our parking lot every single day, vendors with large trucks parked on Coral World property — it's increasing the congestion, and every day, I have no choice but to sit and wait till it clears."
Weighing the arguments, CZM committee member Richard Brown said it's clear that all sides are asking for some "immediate relief."
"People are looking for relief now, but I don't really hear that there's anything you can do to satisfy anybody immediately," Brown said to Parks and Recreation officials.
"And that's basically true," responded HPR Commissioner St. Claire N. Williams. "The vendors would like to go on the beach side, but we don't have the authority to do that."
While the department will continue to listen to the vendors' concerns, it would be counterproductive to wait and let conditions in the area get worse, he added.
One CZM committee member agreed.
"It isn't forever, it's for a short time, and for improvement, so we all have to live with this," said committee chairman Austin "Babe" Monsanto. "This project means a lot to the community — the area is a drug haven, there's contraband out there, there's a lot of activity out there and we need to come together and support this project."
The committee has 30 days to make a decision on the department's permit application. Meanwhile, residents have seven days to submit any additional testimony on the project.
Along with approving Coral World's permit application for the sea lion habitat, the committee also gave the thumbs-up to Down Island View Developers for a multimillion dollar resort and condo development in Smith Bay.
Committee members present during Tuesday's meeting were Brown, Fern LaBorde, Monsanto, and Peggy Simmonds.
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