Island Center – St. Croix’s Iconic Amphitheater Getting a Face-Lift

Island Center seating. In the rear, from left are the food concession, drink concession and ticket office, and the gazebo entry way. (Eliza McKay photo)
Island Center seating. In the rear, from left are the food concession, drink concession and ticket office, and the gazebo entry way. (Elisa McKay photo)
Eugene 'Doc' Petersen and Curliss Solomon of the Caribbean Dance Company attach foam to the new plywood flooring. (Eliza McKay photo)
Eugene ‘Doc’ Petersen and Curliss Solomon of the Caribbean Dance Company attach foam to the new plywood flooring. (Elisa McKay photo)

Island Center of St. Croix is experiencing a roof-to-floor restoration through the efforts of the community at large.

Donations, barters, and paid skilled workers are responsible for the results, according to Eugene “Doc” Petersen, who is spearheading the repair project.

The center has undergone plenty of wear and tear over the years, and 2017’s Hurricane Maria added an emphatic final blow.

The focus of entertaining the community has not shifted while repairs are in progress. January brought a full ensemble honoring the life of Martin Luther King Jr., with singers and dancers and musicians paying homage to the late civil rights leader. Petersen is a well-known vocalist and guitarist and was onstage performing at that event with other singers.

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In the months that followed, Petersen’s idea of acknowledging celebrities proved successful. March’s tribute to singer Aretha Franklin was a huge success, Petersen said. The community came out in number, filled the seats and enjoyed the show, he added.

April’s focus was “The Festival of Praise” program that brought together the voices of the University of the Virgin Islands Inspirational Choir, Charlene Jones, the Young Soldiers of Christ, Suzette Jones, the Adonai Dancers, and many more performers.

“Folks have been generous with their time and monetary donations, and we look forward to more volunteers coming on board,” Petersen said. But there’s plenty more to do, he added, saying, “There’s a lot of work to be done if we want to bring Island Center back to its original charm and vitality. Right now we are focused on the installation of a new wood floor to accommodate the Caribbean Dance Company in their upcoming June program. It’s important that dancers have high-quality wooden floors while performing, to avoid injuries.”

Members of the Caribbean Dance Company have come on board to help as volunteers in partial exchange for the use of the performance center. Not all of the community’s volunteerism can be bartered and some monetary payment is expected for the use of the facility, Petersen added.

“We ordered plywood from UDL Lumber in Estate Glynn and we put a request out to the community asking for donations to pay for the lumber. People have come through beautifully and practically all of the plywood has been paid for, but we are in need of more financial help,” he said.

Interested parties can make their donation directly to UDL Lumber by calling the business at 340-778-2331.

Seating under the center’s cover is available, with 550 chairs for patrons. Bleacher seats used to be able to accommodate another 500 to 600 patrons, but there are only 100 available seats in that area at this time.

Petersen grew up with some of the knowledge of Island Center and he also found, in his research, many facts about the amphitheater:

– The land for Island Center was donated to a local group in 1964 to 1965. The group continued to raise money and, in 1966, formed the 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, Island Center of St. Croix, Inc., doing business as Island Center for the Performing Arts. The doors opened in 1967.

– Over the years, local people became involved, with 500 members and 20 or more board members. Island Center functioned well and continued to build and raise from $15,000 upwards to $30,000.

– Island Center became a popular venue, with more than 1,000 patrons seated for performances by such luminaries as Paquito Rivera, Jose Feliciano, Nancy Wilson, and Ray Charles. One of the Rotary Clubs brought the Ebony Fashion Fair to the stage. Festival royalty competed in the center for the title of queen.

Workmen apply new plywood flooring on top of the old wooden floor. (Eliza McKay photo)
Workmen apply new plywood flooring on top of the old wooden floor. (Elisa McKay photo)

The people who had money and funded the majority of the performances got older, some moved to the states and some passed on. The flow of money dried to a trickle. Partial funding came through the National Endowment on the Arts, the Virgin Islands Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but it wasn’t enough to keep the center going.

“The money that kept the center going was ‘old school’ money donated by people who grew up with a philanthropic mind,” Petersen said. Today the “new money” is not being put back into the community, he said.

Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 did considerable damage to the property and FEMA granted about $300,000 for repairs. Over the years, there was considerable damage to the roof and it required repair. Zenon Construction Corporation repaired the roof in exchange for three acres of the property.

By the year 2000, the amphitheater was in derelict condition and Petersen was approached to reorganize the board and request funding from the government with some help from the performing artists and the community.

“We started getting it back to a functional state. The board president bought the chairs, the chain link fence was replaced with wrought iron and it began to come back to life,” Petersen said.

Petersen served as president of the board and managing director in 2009. There was sporadic entertainment, but Petersen had to leave the following year for health and familial obligations. With no one to pick up the mantle, the center began to go downhill.

“There was no one to blame. It was not easy finding someone to sacrifice the time to do the work required on a day-to-day basis,” Petersen said.

Island Center was never closed – but it was not fully functioning and was in disrepair. Performers would request the use of the stage and would clean up and do whatever was necessary to get it ready for a show.

Petersen came back in early 2017 and began working to restore whatever the needs were. Several performers came back to offer shows to the community. Then Maria hit and damaged the old roof over the stage, soaking everything – the stage, the instruments, and the curtains – with the only good fortune being the main roof remained intact.

Eight months after Maria, in 2018 – Caribbean Dance Company, Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights, the Ay Ay Cultural dancers and the Guardians of Culture Moko Jumbies – all came on board to make Island Center a Community Center and focused on getting other performing artists to join in to help bring the center back.

“We’re open to all the performing groups to do a trade-off to cover the cost of presenting a show to the community. Of course, there must be some cash involved to pay WAPA and other necessary expenses.” Petersen said.

“In cleaning the space and reading up on the history, I could see it was all done with people who were interested in theater and would become part of the board. They were active in renting the space out for cultural events,” Petersen added.

Island Center lost its non-profit status and the current eleven-member board is working towards regaining that status.

“Hopefully, the three acres transferred to Zenon Construction Corporation can be bought back when Island Center gets back on its feet,” Petersen said.

“There is a full schedule planned for June. Caribbean Dance Company will perform Saturday and Sunday, June 7 and 8. A stateside group will use the space for the June 17-18 weekend. Island Center of St. Croix is producing ‘Soul to Soul’ on June 22 – a local tribute to singers Wilson Pickett, James Brown and Tina Turner,” Petersen said.

The board of directors continues to put out calls for volunteers for help in their preferred skillset and for groups to perform on the stage of Island Center of St. Croix, Petersen said.

More information on performances can be found on the Island Center of St. Croix page on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, along with information on volunteer and donating.

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