President Joseph Biden, in January, signed into law the designation of St. Croix as a National Heritage Area (NHA). National Heritage Areas are places where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes. St. Croix becomes one of only 56 places in the United States to receive this designation.
The rich and varied history of St. Croix lends itself to an intriguing set of themes that connect people to the distinct resources of the island and contribute to the overall heritage of our nation. Consequently, St. Croix’s NHA designation, which comes after years of advocacy, planning, community organizing and studies, is intended to encourage historic preservation of the island.
To capitalize on the recognition by our community of the rich cultural history of St. Croix, its agricultural potential and aesthetically pleasing landscape along with the hands-on dynamic manufacturing possibilities, each of our development projects must fit within the matrix of those factors. Unfortunately, the 15.6-acre commercial development in the middle of the historic, culturally rich Beeston Hill neighborhood does not.
While the economic development of St. Croix remains a consensus priority, adding to the many existing shopping centers — some of which, at best, need refurbishing and others that appear abandoned — without a comprehensive development strategy is exactly the sort of haphazard approach that endangers the very resource values needed to sustain long-term economic growth.
The owners of the planned Beeston Hill development, which will include 24 condo units, a restaurant, retail space, and parking lots, have touted its economic potential. Such development is of course needed on the island; however, the where and how of the development in the overall advancement of St. Croix is very important. The development proposal was initially rejected by the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) before the U.S. Virgin Islands Legislature invalidated the agency’s ruling. Chief among Beeston Hill residents’ concerns are increased traffic density, a sharp rise in noise pollution, and an irreparable loss of green cover, which provides essential habitat for wildlife and a natural buffer against flooding.
As St. Croix increases in meaningful growth and intra-island collaboration in agriculture, agribusiness and agritourism, marketing in cultural tourism, along with rebuilding needs which will drive demand for housing and retail— new development must be coupled with sustainable resource use for durable growth and resilience.
Meanwhile, St. Croix may fail to capitalize on the momentum afforded by its National Heritage Area status, which followed nearly two decades of persistent advocacy and painstaking work that began with former V.I. Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen’s bill to authorize a feasibility study.
To make full use of St. Croix’s NHA designation, we must develop a comprehensive development strategy and management plan and avoid spot zoning. NHAs generate $5.50 for every $1 of federal investment, and, as such, St. Croix can effectively leverage federal funds to create jobs, generate revenue for the local government, develop youth-oriented recreational and educational opportunities, and support restoration projects that improve air and water quality, thereby enhancing the quality of life for many residents. Equally important, NHA designation equips St. Croix with the capacity to sustain economic growth through revitalization and heritage tourism.
As we consider the future of the island, it may be instructive to look to the past. St. Croix’s revitalization rests on our ability to harness existing resources for sustainable growth and prosperity. Achieving NHA status is too significant an opportunity to squander. We owe as much to our island’s present and future generations.
— Stacey E. Plaskett is the V.I. delegate to Congress.