Plans to bury electrical lines underground in downtown Charlotte Amalie were met with little resistance Tuesday night by merchants in the area, who said they were looking forward to more reliable power – especially during hurricane season.
Department of Public Works officials called a meeting this week with the downtown merchants who gathered at the Chamber of Commerce offices on St. Thomas to hear details of what was going to happen over the next few months. The V.I. Water and Power Authority had received federal funding for the project in 2008, but a series of delays recently forced the government to ask for an extension so the funds would not be lost after the original five-year deadline.
In a release Tuesday night, Gov. John deJongh Jr. said that he, Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls and WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr. recently wrote to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Caribbean Area Division for an extension, which would allow WAPA’s project to begin around the same time as Public Works begins revitalization work on Main Street.
"FEMA did not approve my request and advised the government that the monies would expire on June 30 whether the fund were obligated or not," deJongh wrote. "This means that we must initiate the project so as to meet the deadlines and not lose the investment."
After the news of the extension was received, Public Works called a meeting with downtown merchants to explain that work would begin in the next few days, with some preparatory work beginning over the weekend and the project officially starting on Monday.
WAPA spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn said the majority of the construction will be coming from the Donald C. Francois substation in Long Bay and will move along the waterfront, with the bulk of the work happening on Raadets Gade.
An excavation site will also be dug in front of the Alvaro deLugo Post Office, but Dunn said there will be little disruption on Main Street itself.
The project will take about four months to complete, but will then be followed by the second Public Works project, which is projected to last between 18 and 24 months and extend from the Enid Baa Library down to the post office.
Joe Aubain, executive director of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday that most of the work will be done at night, which helped to ease some of the merchants’ concerns.
"This first phase with WAPA will have some impact, the most critical being Raadets Gade, because that’s where the bulk of the work has to be done," Aubain said. "The street isn’t going to be closed to pedestrians but is going to be closed to traffic, so what we discussed yesterday is putting up signage, letting people know that the shops are open for business, etc., and putting up actual pictures of what the end project is going to look like."
Aubain said at Tuesday night’s meeting that it had been suggested that upper Raadets Gade be made into a right hand turn so people can get back out onto Back Street. "That’s something that’s going to be investigated," he said.
Speaking about the Public Works project, Aubain added that the chamber has continued to work closely with Smalls to minimize the impact downtown.
"If you look at some of the issues raised by the Market Square project that’s going on right now, it’s a lot to think about, so our goal is to get as much done in the nighttime as possible and to minimize the impact because every dollar lost is critical when season comes around and this work is going on," Aubain said.
Asked about the general sentiment of the merchants attending Tuesday night’s meeting, Aubain said that most realize that both projects are "something that’s necessary for the future."
Walking around Main Street Wednesday, many merchants echoed Aubain’s remarks.
"WAPA’s work is not really going to affect us at all," said Dharshan Nagrani of Jewels Forever. "We’re happy it’s going to get started and we’re positive that it’s going to help, especially with hurricane season coming up. The lines are going to be underground so we can stay up and running if anything happens, so that’s a positive thing and if we have to endure a little bit of loss of business, it’s only a couple of months."
Jose Belcher, whose Billabong store sits on upper Raadets Gade, said merchants in the immediate area are going to wait and see what happens when construction starts.
"Everybody knows it has to be done and it will probably be difficult when it’s happening, but at the end of the day it will be a good thing," Belcher said. "We’re just going to have to wait and see what the process is and that’s probably going to be the determining factor. We hope that they’ll do the right thing and make it easier for people in the meantime. Everybody’s going to be affected, some more than others, and if we’re the ones then we’re the ones. There’s nothing we can do about that. You just have to make the best of it."
Dunn said Wednesday night that WAPA was encouraged by the response from business owners, who she said did have some concerns about the timing, but that they generally understood that the authority could not afford to lose the funding for the project. Overall the undergrounding will cost $2.1 million, 1.6 million of which will be coming from FEMA with WAPA’s internal funds covering the rest.
"We had hoped to do everything the same time as Public Works was doing their project to minimize the amount of disruption, but we have to go forward, and we will go forward to the best of our ability and with minimal disruption to the public," Dunn said.