May 3, 2006 – Although Carifest will never blossom on the West Indian Co. Ltd. land it has leased for several years, all is not lost. "Like Atlantis, we'll rise again," said Carifest President Eric Matthews Wednesday.
Matthews has invested some 20 years of his life in the long-awaited theme park. "You don't fritter away that amount of years and money unless you believe in it."
Edward E. Thomas, WICO president and chief executive officer, said at the company's annual meeting Monday, "Our company has terminated all negotiations with the Carifest Corp."
Instead of the cultural/amusement park that has been on the drawing board for decades, he said WICO has put out a request for proposals for design and construction of 100 middle- and upper-income residential dwellings.
"The news did not come as a shock," Matthews said. "It's been evolving, but it's a shock when reality hits."
Carifest had a 70-year lease on the WICO land near the cruise ship dock, but Matthews said, "There was a clause that we were to pay a set amount of money on an annual basis. We had a difficult time putting the financials together."
Matthews said because of Sept. 11 and Iraq, construction costs "increased significantly, up to 30 percent."
The dream of Matthews and Carifest Chairman Leo Barbel Jr., the project has had a long and financially rocky road since its inception in the early '90s. In August 2001, it looked like smooth sailing when the legislation establishing a "public benefit corporation" was signed into law by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, which the governor said would "provide the bonding authority needed to fund the theme park." For a history of the theme park (See "'Public Benefit' Status is Big Boost for Carifest").
In 2003, the 25th Legislature passed legislation directing $10 million in Public Finance Authority funds toward the theme park, but Carifest was unable to show it could finance the project, and last November the 26th Legislature diverted those funds to the University of the Virgin Islands. Turnbull vetoed the bill, but the Senate overrode the veto.
Matthews remained positive and optimistic Wednesday. "It's premature to say exactly what we are going to do. There is interest both on St. Thomas and from other islands."
He stressed the importance of building the project whose focus is V.I. and Caribbean history. "This project is really bigger than me or Leo," Matthews said. "It's about what the needs of St. Thomas and the V.I. are. It's not ego driven. It is what is needed from a tourist point of view. It's about history."
Matthews said the former WICO land would have been the ideal spot, situated so close to the cruise ship dock. "The cruise ships are the island's primary market," he said, adding that he was somewhat surprised that WICO is planning to use the land for housing.
"We are still sorting lots of things out," Matthews said. "We are looking at options, and we don't want to mislead the public."
He said his office would issue "a full press release" on Carifest's future within the next week.
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