Historic Sunday Market Square will come alive with the opening of the “New Alexander Theater” in downtown Christiansted. The St. Croix Foundation has officially been approved to renovate and retrofit the “Old Alexander Theater.”
Opening night of the Alexander Theater was in 1954 with the screening of the movie, “The Robe,” with a full house attending. The theater was built by Joseph Alexander, who owned most of the properties in the square.
“We are excited to report that Phase I of a Hazard Mitigation Reimbursable Grant through FEMA will create the New Alexander Theater,” said Deanna James, president of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development. “It will become St. Croix’s first state-of-the-art, indoor performing arts center and conference convening space serving as critical economic stimulus in downtown Christiansted.”
The theater will also serve as the only downtown Christiansted community disaster shelter capable of sheltering upwards of 300 people, James said.
James was named president of the St. Croix Foundation in February 2019. She served as executive director beginning in 2014. James works intimately with almost every local public sector agency, a cadre of private sector partners, and a host of civic organizations throughout the territory.
“Over the past 20 years, there has been a comprehensive renovation of the square’s roadway and several other properties, with the theater being a central component of the foundation’s overarching vision for the square,” she said.
James spoke to the Source about the foundation’s launch in the midst of the 1989 Hurricane Hugo recovery. Arnold Golden, Phillip Gerard, Michael Neuburger, and Claudette “Adjoa” Young-Hinds came together to organize for community development following the storm.
Tri Island Development was the holding company for all of these properties, James said. When the company went bankrupt, the foundation became the court-appointed receiver of seven properties, which were all blighted, she said.
“We sold two of the properties, and slowly through a Community Development Block Grant and private donations, we were able to refurbish one property at a time.”
The theater was the last property the foundation decided to work on. In 2007, Robert Bartner, the Broadway theater producer, joined the board. His interest led him to do a comprehensive design study, James said, giving the foundation a plan if funds became available.
“We had other pressing priorities – education, public safety – that we, as an organization, could not address,” James said. “It wasn’t time.”
The foundation invested almost $4 million in the square, first in two moderate-to-low income housing apartments with non-profit organizations renting downstairs.
“This property built the first small business incubator in the territory. The economy was getting ready to tank and most of the renters in the incubator did not make it.”
We cobblestoned Market Square with monies from Federal Highway Grants and the Virgin Islands Public Works department, James said.
“When we did the roadway, we asked the government to bury all of our utilities,” she said. “As a result of that, we were 100 percent up in four to five days after Hurricane Maria. Everything is in divine order.”
“We had 30 people working – the Delegate to Congress, FEMA, SBA – there was space on the floor and at the table. All of the community organizations came for frontline relief, to collaborate,” said James.
When FEMA inquired about the brick wall behind the building, the foundation gave them a tour of the old theater. FEMA offered alternate options to the existing theater plan, and the foundation took those into consideration.
FEMA needed more shelter space because they were decommissioning a lot of the schools, and they encouraged the foundation to go through the House Mitigation process. The organization was selected as a top 10 priority at $1.6 million for Phase I for architectural design and engineering assessment.
Once completed, the foundation would be eligible for $10 million for Phase II with a tight timeline covering procurement and acquisition of property, James said.
Overall, the plan is to use the structure as a secondary shelter. It would be an actual safe house, James said, with a projection of room for 300 persons sitting and standing.
“This property represents the holistic way of community development the St. Croix Foundation thinks about – public safety, health and welfare, communications, youth and education, economic development and arts and culture,” she said.
James said the foundation is trying to make a strong case for more Virgin Islanders to hold onto their properties. They want to offer incentives to property owners who revitalize their blighted properties, and empower owners with information they need for the restoration process.
There is a story behind the families of former enslaved people still owning their property on St. Croix, James said. “It’s about understanding your story,” she said. “Our enslaved ancestors had only one day a month – Sunday – to come to Market Square and sell their wares. This property is historic, it is legend.”
St. Croix Foundation Program Officer Lilli Cox has been working with James for 15 years. Cox said the people of St. Croix are an asset. “It’s people power,” she said.
“In reality, many nonprofits are stabilizing forces in our community,” said James. “They hold vision steady; they advocate for public policy; they save lives; and they drive social change.”
The restoration of the Alexander Theater will be one of the single most transformative community development initiatives that the St. Croix Foundation has undertaken to date, according to James, and it will impact the economic vitality and social fabric of historic downtown Christiansted.
The Foundation is establishing a coalition of donors to invest in the Theater Revolving Fund, which will enable it to fully execute Phase I and Phase II of the project.
Contact the St. Croix Foundation to learn more about this project and how you can help make this vision a reality. Visit the website at www.stxfoundation.org or call 340-773-9898.