November 18, 2017 6:09 am Last modified: 12:21 pm

The Billy Pulpit: Make Oscar Henry Customs House a Crucian Cultural Shop

Running along Frederiksted’s gorgeously renovated waterfront on a recent cruise day, seeing all the cruise passengers, I thought how wonderful it would be if visitors were greeted by something fun, attractive and uniquely Crucian — instead of a boarded-up, semi-abandoned Oscar Henry Customs House.

Visitors are looking for a unique experience; for a taste of the local culture; for local dishes, drinks and flavors. St. Croix is working to brand itself as a history and nature tourism destination, where visitors can soak up some local culture and enjoy its lush greenery.

And several times a year, during the Crucian Carnival, on the Fourth of July and other times, visitors and residents alike enjoy when the territory’s best cooks and bakers of traditional treats come to Frederiksted to show their wares in front of the Customs House.

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What if, instead of a shuttered and derelict building, cruise passengers streamed out past and into an old-timey store, with some of the town’s well-known culture bearers decked out in madras and white cotton, selling traditional candies, cakes and drinks, while talking about V.I. food traditions?

What better way for Frederiksted and St. Croix to put their best foot forward? And what could be a more appropriate use for that attractive historic building?

After all, the Customs House, built during Danish rule in the 18th century and expanded in the 19th century, is already a major historic landmark in town and is already front and center for every cruise ship visitor to the big island. Historic venues like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts have long combined historical interpretation with stores selling wares to visitors. And it is already named after the late Henry, who was a highly regarded farmer, promoter of V.I. culture and agriculture, and commissioner of Agriculture, among other things. The V.I. Legislature bestowed that honor on Henry in 1984.

The government has had some trouble finding a good use for the building, which, like many historic buildings, is not designed to be closed up and air conditioned and ill-suited for offices. From around 2006-2009, the Department of Tourism housed its St. Croix offices there, but moved out due to mustiness and complaints of mold. Like neighboring Fort Frederik, the structure is inherently a bit musty and cannot be fully sealed. Since then it has sat empty, but one can look through the windows and see its several rooms.

In 2013, the V.I. government painted the Customs House, but then-assistant commissioner of Tourism said the building needed a lot of work to be made useable for offices.

Money is always an issue, and a multi-million dollar total renovation is probably not in the works in the next year or two. But it should be easier making the structure open to the air and suitable for visitors and staff to sell baked goods, traditional candies, local honey and value-added products like guavaberry rum and jam, or bags of locally grown bush tea. After all, Fort Frederik and other buildings have similar issues with mustiness, but thousands of visitors stream through regularly without concern. Having air flowing makes a major difference.

And there is some money. The Department of Tourism uses a portion of the roughly $20 million in hotel occupancy taxes the government collects every year to subsidize activities that are likely to bring in more money than is spent promoting them. The funding helps with Carnival activities, concerts and major sporting events, among other things.

Opening up the Customs House and using it, at least on cruise ship days, as a shop, with a historical interpreter telling customers about the wares and the town, would further the mission of the Department of Tourism and be a good use for some of that money. It would be a major change and a major bump-up to cruise passengers’ very first impression of Frederiksted. It would give them something to talk about, to look at and to taste. Visitors may start their time on St. Croix learning a little about its history, and maybe trying something new, like sorrel or soursop drink, or maybe a peppermint lozenge or piece of dunderslaw.

Spending a moderate sum; say $100,000 or $150,000 annually, on salaries for one or two part-time employees and for upkeep and maintenance of the building would surely pay for itself, if not directly in store revenues. It would pay off by giving all those cruise passengers a special experience they can tell their friends and relatives about, enhancing St. Croix’s reputation as a destination.

The legislation for such an initiative could go something like this: "Whereas … " — bills, especially legislation honoring a notable member of the community, like Oscar Henry, begin with a lot of "whereas" clauses, outlining why he merits the distinction and why the shop would honor his legacy.

The bill could include clauses, such as:

Whereas the colonial-era Customs House in Frederiksted is already named for Henry because of his work for the U.S. Customs Service for 24 years;

Whereas Oscar Henry was a man of the earth who farmed St. Croix, consciously represented his culture, promoted agriculture and the culture of St. Croix to the world, and served as V.I. commissioner of agriculture and;

Whereas Henry passed away in 2013, at the ripe old age of 97, leaving behind a lifetime of devotion to the territory, its culture and farming traditions;

Whereas Henry was, in the words of Delegate Donna Christensen, "a tremendous leader who helped bring about change to the Virgin Islands in a way that honored and preserved the territory’s heritage and cultural legacy;”

Whereas Henry helped lay out the pastures which form a large square north of Frederiksted;

Whereas Henry’s diverse farm in Estate La Grange was known for its mangoes, avocados, the healthiest livestock and sheep; and

Whereas the locked and empty historic Customs House in Frederiksted named for Henry is the first structure all cruise ship passengers see."

Then the bill would say the Department of Tourism will open and air out the building, and hire two people to manage and run a small shop on cruise days. The person manning the shop would wear madras or other traditional clothing, and would be trained and ready to tell visitors about the significance of their clothing, the shop’s wares, the history of the town and V.I. history.

One can envision a photo of Henry hanging in the shop with an explanatory plaque, with the manager able and ready to talk about Henry, the shop’s wares and the history of the town and the Customs House.

To help ensure quality and authenticity, they could give the bakers who won top prizes at V.I. Agrifest the right of first refusal to supply cakes and pastries, but allow the manager to select someone else if the winner is not able to deliver. Along with fresh-baked goods, the store could sell a long list of traditional and local food and drink, with a list possibly spelled out in the legislation. Imagine shelves stocked with two or more brands of local honey, guavaberry rum, dried bush tea, julie mango jam and chutney, or dry pastries like horse shoe cookies, as someone knowledgable about V.I. tradition tells visitors all about them and gives out samples. There could be peppermint lozenge, dunderslaw and other candies that have long shelf-lives.

And time, energy and money permitting, there could be some fresh local produce, from bananas to mangos to eggfruit and soursop, with an expert on hand to suggest how to consume it.

A store like this would not really compete with the existing vendors because food and agricultural goods are only occasionally on offer for cruise ships. Rather, it would provide a new venue to sell those popular items and to let visitors know about them and present them in the best possible light.

Is there a senator out there who likes this idea and would take it on as their own? A number of senators are strong advocates of local agriculture, and each senator has spoken on the record about their support for local agriculture. How about it, senators, what do you think? Is this a good idea? Would you or your colleagues consider this? And if not this, perhaps look to some other solution to open up the Customs House and give cruise passengers a better first look at Frederiksted?

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