Community members had their first opportunity on Wednesday to learn about five initiatives proposed for St. John that could improve the lives of children, teens, adults and seniors.
The proposals were presented at an online meeting for groups seeking Community Development Block Grants. The session was hosted by Tamisha Evans and Jennifer Jones of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority.
Block Grants fund initiatives that meet the needs of low- to moderate-income residents by expanding job opportunities, increasing housing, and providing critical services. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
At Wednesday’s meeting, five non-profit groups presented their proposals for St. John, including two proposals for new facilities on a 2.6-acre site in Coral Bay. The site, Parcel No. 6R-2C Estate Carolina, is owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Thomas of the Virgin Islands, Inc.
A long-awaited community center was the first of the two construction proposals presented at the meeting. David Minner, representing Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Cruz Bay, said the church is seeking $750,000 from the Block Grant program to start building a one-story, 4,739-square-foot concrete structure.
The project has been under development for years, according to Lisa Etre, secretary of the Coral Bay Building Committee. Final drawings will soon be submitted to government agencies for approval, she said.
Etre said the community center will be available to individuals and community groups for a wide variety of purposes, including Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, yoga classes, Friday night youth activities, and COVID-19 testing.
“The church is trying to create a physical, mental and spiritual renaissance, and make life better for the community, especially the youth,” Etre said.
The building committee recently modified its plans after an archaeological survey indicated the presence of burial sites and artifacts from Taino dwellings. Etre said the community center will now be located farther back on the property to preserve the discoveries.
The parish applied for the maximum grant available through the Block Grant program, but the community center is expected to cost around $1.3 million.
“We plan to build it in stages, and we will be fundraising for it,” Etre said.
The church was able to purchase the property through “the gracious donations made by locals and visitors to the parish,” she added.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Sandra Thomas Mason of Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands presented an entirely separate proposal for the same property to design and construct an emergency shelter and transitional housing facility.
Mason said their overall plan is to construct a 3,300-square-foot building that would serve as a soup kitchen, homeless shelter, wellness center, and camp for disabled children. The building, which would include a commercial kitchen, offices, meeting room, and sleeping quarters, would be leased from the Catholic Diocese for 15 years.
Although plans are still in the preliminary stages, Catholic Charities has a long track record of providing services for the needy throughout the territory. The organization currently works with Our Lady of Mount Carmel to provide daily meals for 80 people and housing for five males who would otherwise be homeless.
The community center and transitional housing facility are just two of the buildings intended for the site owned by the Catholic Diocese. The church plans to construct a chapel – to be known as St. Therese – and a rectory for nuns.
The site now includes a platform with a tent where Mass is held twice a week.
At Wednesday’s meeting, three other groups that have previously applied for funding also presented proposals to expand or continue their programs. These were:
– The Boys & Girls Club of St. Thomas and St. John, Inc., seeking $20,000 to establish an after-school program to be held at the Julius E. Sprauve School on St. John. That presentation was made by Jacqueline Brown, regional director of the Boys & Girls Club for St. Thomas and St. John.
– St. John Community Foundation, Inc., seeking almost $120,000 to provide supportive services to seniors, including on-demand transportation services, outreach, assessments, counseling, referrals and in-home services. That proposal was presented by Ian Samuels on behalf of the Community Foundation.
– Family Resource Center, Inc., seeking $20,000 to fund a position for a part-time counselor to work with St. John teens affected by violence. That proposal was presented by Anya Stuart, shelter/safe house manager at Family Resource Center Inc.
The Housing Finance Authority also held online meetings this week for projects proposed for St. Thomas and St. Croix. The proposals will now be reviewed, and the staff of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority will announce in August which projects will be further considered for funding.
The territory has received $1.9 million from HUD for the Community Development Block Grant program. That amount, minus the costs of administration, will be split equally between projects for the territory’s two districts – St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John.