It might not be Times Square, but plans to turn downtown Charlotte Amalie into an after-hours hot spot was high on the list of priorities Tuesday as senators considered bills to add parking in the area and implement of a new passenger fee that could help finance the improvements.
Both bills were approved during Monday’s Finance Committee hearing and forwarded onto the Rules and Judiciary Committee for further consideration and possible amendments.
The lack of parking downtown has long been a critical issue on St. Thomas, one that testifiers listed Monday as a deterrent for both residents and visitors who may need or want to make a stop-in, but either can’t find a spot or are turned off by the heavy traffic in the area.
Senators’ solution, which was supported by Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls, was putting the fees collected from the Fort Christian Parking Lot toward a multilevel — most likely three stories — parking structure that Smalls said could also incorporate offices, agencies and still leave an open area for Carnival activities.
The proposed structure would basically encompass the perimeter of the Fort Christian Parking Lot, extending along Norre Gade to include the Credit Union and old Callwood Command center, leaving the lot’s existing interior open and available for activities, such as the annual Carnival Village, that currently go on there.
"It is the objective of the department to solicit a request for qualifications (RFQ) to identify and contract with an experienced and qualified vendor who would partner with the government …in a public-private engagement to develop, construct and manage a parking facility within the footprint of the existing lot," Smalls said Monday.
Smalls said he hopes to have the RFQ completed and a vendor in place by the "end of the third quarter" of this fiscal year. The terms of the contract will include: a government lease agreement for the property for a certain number of years, revenue sharing on a monthly or annual basis and a clause that would return the facility, once the lease has expired, to the government’s possession.
The bill’s current language specifies that fees from the Fort Christian lot be turned over to the Public Finance Authority to cover the cost of the new facility, but Smalls recommended Tuesday that the money stay with Public Works, and asked that the bill be amended to allow the department, instead of the PFA, to be the point person on the project.
The bill sets a construction date of "no later than" Oct. 30, 2012, but senators said they hoped the department might be able to move forward with the project as soon as possible.
Downtown Revitalization Inc. President David Bornn also discussed the possibility of putting up multiple parking facilities across Charlotte Amalie in an effort to break up some of the traffic congestion and make the town more accessible for everyone.
Voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Shawn-Michael Malone, Janette Millin-Young, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, Sammuel Sanes and Celestino A. White Sr.
Committee member Sen. Louis P. Hill was absent.
Also approved was a bill to enact a $1 marine terminal user’s tax, which will be assessed against every cruise ship passenger to St. Thomas-St. John.
While Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty said the fee, when added to the wharfage and ship dues levied by the V.I. Port Authority, would not break the bank for passengers and would be comparable — or even lower — than fees imposed in nearby tourist destinations, such as Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.
The fee would still be palatable to visitors if VIPA moves ahead with recent recommendations offered by an outside consultant to increase its marine rate structure, which includes wharfage and ship dues collected at the district’s docks, she added.
The authority’s consultant recommended a $2.50 increase in the fees, according to VIPA Executive Director Kenn Hobson.
The fee — or ocean common carrier tax — considered during Monday’s meeting would be also collected by the Port Authority, but would be remitted to the General Fund, which senators said could help finance a wide range of infrastructure improvements within both districts, making the territory more attractive to visitors.
The bill’s final section also allows cruise ships docked on St. Thomas-St. John to operate their onboard casinos while in port after 5 p.m. The casinos would be available for passengers only, which senators said would give the cruise ships more incentive to stay later within the territory.
While no one spoke out against the bill, Rivera-O’Reilly requested that a portion of the revenue be earmarked and used for St. Croix.
Voting for the bill were Dowe, Malone, Millin-Young, Rivera-O’Reilly, Sanes and White.
Hill was absent.
Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen and Usie R. Richards were also present during Tuesday’s meeting.