Senators learned at Thursday’s Finance Committee hearing that the 30-acre Tech Village project being undertaken by the University of the Virgin Islands Research & Technology Park is slated to be built on agricultural land across from the St. Croix campus.
RTPark Executive Director and CEO Peter Chapman said the project is tied to the land. It is considered a mixed-use project that will be dedicated to agricultural research and technology, as well as economic diversity, housing and educational needs on St. Croix.
The Tech Village will feature 60 units of residential housing, a building designated for commercial space, a 120-room “teaching hotel,” a conference room, a solar micro-grid and 16 acres of designated farming space. In total, 60 percent of the site will be strictly dedicated to farming and agriculture.
Additionally, Chapman said, the project will create 125 construction jobs and 300 permanent agricultural jobs.
The plan for the project began in August when the property was brought to the attention of RTPark. Chapman said the rezoning process is scheduled to being in September, and in October a complete refinement of the site plan and development program is scheduled to be completed. RTPark hopes to close on financing in December.
Funding the $40 million project “has not been a cakewalk,” Chapman said. Opportunity Zone funding “will flow into all project phases, but provides only a portion of the equity, and none of the debt,” he added. Because of this financing gap, Chapman said a “creative capital-raising strategy” has been used.
Housing and Urban Development and Federal Housing Administration mortgage financing for up to $9 million from Dwight Capital would need to be secured, in addition to another $7 million that Chapman said would be used “specifically to provide long-term subsidy on some of the apartments.”
Though the project seems to fall in line with RTPark’s original designated purpose to help diversify the territory’s economy by providing suitable sites for research, technology and agricultural research businesses, senators expressed mixed feelings about the chosen site.
“There’s no other way to slice it and dice it … it’s agricultural land,” Sen. Dwayne DeGraff said. “To say that if we don’t get this piece of land – with all of the other beautiful land we have on St. Croix – then the project won’t go through really throws a curveball to me. Because I support UVI and I support RTPark 100 percent, but to see that we are going to take away 30 acres of agricultural land to put in this type of project … that’s troubling to me.”
While DeGraff said he is in support of the overall project, he added, “to take away agricultural land from St. Croix, I think I am going to have a problem with that.”
But Chapman said the land was chosen after careful consideration of a number of parameters set forth by RTPark’s various partners: Dwight Capital, Renaissance Equity Partners, National Development Council, Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition and UVI Cooperative Extension Service.
The project had to be within an “opportunity zone,” which Chapman defined as an “economically distressed community where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment,” and be in close proximity to the university. The land met the criteria. He added that a portion of revenues generated will “go to establish a fund and sustainable program for farmers.”
While Chapman said it is too early to provide an exact percentage of revenue that will go to this fund, he said, “At the end of the day, we will provide a resource that is sustainable and a resource that does not currently exist for farmers on St. Croix. We believe this will have a major impact for farmers.”
“We have toiled on this subject because it is in fact agriculture land,” Sen. Allison DeGazon said. “I myself, as a farmer, had concerns and had to do some soul searching because at what point do we bring the two together – where we have actual agriculture land, agriculture study and training, housing, etc.? We are solving several of our economic issues or gaps that we have. I recognize that is an area where there may be some concern. There may be some people who voice their disapproval, but as policymakers we have to make the tough decision as to whether or not this is in the direction for economic growth. Or do we want to see a tract of land that sits there for another 20 years?”
RTPark is entirely self-funded and an autonomous quasi-public entity that did not require nor request funds from the General Fund this year.
Sens. DeGraff, DeGazon, Kurt Vialet, Marvin Blyden, Oakland Benta, Donna Frett-Gregory and Janelle Sarauw were present for the Finance hearing.