Feb. 13, 2006 — Frenchtown fishermen said Monday evening that they are fighting for their livelihood.
In an outdoor meeting by the Gustave Quetel Fishing Center of the St. Thomas Fishermen's Association, Jimmy Magner, association president, rallied a group of 25 or so local fishermen to unite in calling for an area to clean and sell their fish in the wake of immediate plans to reconstruct the fishing center.
The Department of Planning and Natural Resources announced at a meeting with the fishermen last week that work to renovate the center would begin Feb. 27. The reconstruction would displace the fishermen and at least partially close the adjacent parking lot. The fishermen and local restaurants are concerned.
Magner said no plans have been undertaken to create a place for the fishermen to operate when the renovation begins. The renovations will take approximately six months.
Lucia Roberts Francis, DPNR environmental enforcement division director, said before the meeting that the fishermen could sell their fish at Lionel Roberts Stadium, Fort Mylner Shopping Center, or Smith Bay, a statement she had made at the earlier meeting, which antagonized the fishermen.
Magner said Monday, "We cannot sell our fish at those places. They belong to other fishermen. There is no room there."
Julian Magras, association vice president, agreed and brought up another concern shared by the group. "If we don't sell our fish here for six months, we will lose our customers. They will go other places. They won't come back when we open."
Magner told the group, "We are not moving; it is our home port. If we bond together and put up a stink, the government has no choice but to listen to us. We have to decide it now. If we are a unit, stand up."
The mood of the group was passive, with few speaking up. However, when Magner asked for a show of hands, all the fishermen were behind him.
Magner and other fishermen voiced complaints about how little or nothing has been done over the last 10 years to maintain the building. "The roof leaks, the lights don't work," Magner said."This place has not been maintained as it should have been, or we wouldn't be here now. It hasn't been maintained for quite a few years."
Francis said that the Department of Health had called the facility "unsafe." "The work will uplift the building."
Claudette Lewis, DPNR deputy commissioner, gave a little background on the project, which has been in the works for more than two years. She said proper notification — seven to 10 days — would be given regarding the parking restrictions. She said plans are in the works now for alternate parking.
Lewis listened to the fishermen's complaints. She said, "We will have the contractor come in, do what he has to do, and get out, in the shortest amount of time." She noted that the whole building is not coming down.
When Lewis noted that some of the fish center tenants were behind in rent, she got a rise out of Magner.
"I'm guilty," he said. "I put in a door on my own that cost $300. They [DPNR] told me I couldn't do it. I told them I need the door and that's the way it is. How much do they care? They haven't been here once in 10 years."
Francis said the facility would be maintained by DPNR. "The rents may be raised to pay for cleaning and maintaining the area," she said. Magner said rents now are $30 to $40 a month. "After the construction, they are supposed to rise to $60 to $70 per month," he said.
Catherine Bryan, representing Senate President Lorraine Berry, took notes at the meeting, listening intently to the concerns. She said Berry would be making a public announcement on the situation, probably on Tuesday.
"The contractor is coming tomorrow," Magner said. Steve Lammens of Custom Builders has scheduled a walkthrough and assessment of the site for 3 p.m. Magner said the fishermen will meet with him then, and try to work out a solution for selling their fish, for storing their equipment, and for the parking.
Sen. Louis Hill arrived toward the end of the meeting. He also gave a brief rundown of the projects history, which he had initiated when he was St. Thomas-Water Island administrator more than four years ago. He described how Community Block Grant funding was slashed by two members of the Senate at the time.
"Had that not happened," he said, "this project would have started long ago." Hill encouraged both DPNR officers and the fishermen to work together.
"The last meeting, it was non-negotiable," Magner said. That was when Francis had simply told the fishermen to find another locale to sell their fish. "With a little bit of pain," Hill said, "we can work together." Magner expressed hope that something can be worked out at Tuesday's meeting.
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