Legislative plans to extend a moratorium on new bar licenses in Frederiksted and Christiansted five more years met both strong support and vigorous opposition during a town hall meeting hosted by the Legislature and the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce this week.
Defending plans to extend the moratorium, Sen. Sammuel Sanes said taverns were the most common type of business in Frederiksted, with retail coming in second, and asked if more bars were a good idea.
"In terms of revenue, it doesn’t really generate much to the economy. I’m sorry, but those are the facts," Sanes said to the audience in the Great Hall of the St. Croix campus of the University of the Virgin Islands Monday evening.
Sen. Ronald Russell made similar points in support of extending the moratorium.
"The towns used to have other places to meet," Russell said. "But in places, like in Frederiksted on Queen Street, you just have bars. … How do you plan to rehabilitate your town if that is what you are making? Some of us don’t want the town to just be a place to go and drink."
Frederiksted has improved since the V.I. Housing Finance Authority helped create new residential housing in town, and some revitalization is happening, but those areas dominated by bars breed crime "and let’s be real, houses of prostitution," Russell said.
Collin Hodge, event producer for the Christiansted Restaurant and Retail Association, said he "adamantly opposes" the liquor license moratorium.
"None of our members support any illegal activity," Hodge said. "More importantly, there are no such types of businesses in the area of Christiansted that meet what you all are defining as a rum shop or house of prostitution, period."
St. Croix’s two towns are not going to return to being predominantly residential, and requiring businesses to become full-service restaurants in order to serve alcohol is an unfair burden that makes it harder to open a business, he said.
Wayne "Bully" Petersen of Frederiksted also opposed the moratorium, saying many small businesses start in private homes on a shoestring, and excessive rules and restrictions hurt mom-and-pop businesses, especially during a recession.
"These people are just trying to get by," Petersen said.
Attorney Nesha Christian-Hendrickson suggested setting aside small sections of the two towns for bars. "There is a reason why the bars are staying and the restaurants are failing," she said. "Young people do want to go out. Maybe, you could set aside a section of town so people who want to go out can, and those who want peace and quiet can do that too."
Other resident’s concerns ran the gamut from wanting police to crack down on the open sale of bootleg videos that occurs throughout St. Croix to switching to a sales tax, away from the current gross receipts tax.
"I am in the business of renting and selling games and videos, and I have a big issue with this bootlegging in the Virgin Islands," said Miguel Cruz, owner of Planet Video in Frederiksted. "Go to Puerto Rico, you don’t see anyone standing in front of KMart openly selling bootleg videos," he said, prompting applause in the audience.
Beyond cutting into his profits, the open sale of bootleg videos helps create a general atmosphere of criminality, Cruz said.
"I’ve seen police officers in uniform buying bootleg videos at Sunny Isles. I’ve seen corrections officers buying them outside Pueblo at Golden Rock," he said. "We are always talking about crime, but we aren’t doing anything. The cycle of bootlegging is a serious crime, so please address the problem as a serious matter."
Under the guidelines adopted for the forum, rather than asking questions, audience members made statements and senators made statements either responding, or on other topics, at their discretion. Senators at the forum were: Russell, Sanes, Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly and Shawn-Michael Malone.