Myron Jackson, chairman of the Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation and Aging, opened a discussion Monday about Vendors’ Plaza in Charlotte Amalia, saying the discussion about what to do with vendors at the territory’s busiest tourist port has been going on since the 1980s.
Laurie Chapman, president of the V.I. Vendors Association, echoed his statement saying, “Things have been talked about for years, but nothing really happens.”
Jackson said in the ’80s businesspeople were complaining about vendors setting up in the streets and right in front of their doors. He said locating Vendor’s Plaza between the Senate building and Emancipation Garden in 1992 was supposed to be a temporary situation.
Richard Evangelista, commissioner designee for the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, told senators he was not sure why the plaza was put under his department’s jurisdiction, but since it was, he was going to do everything he could to improve its condition.
The biggest problem with the plaza was aesthetic, according to senators and testifiers.
“The general appearance of the plaza continues to be a bother to the Department,” Evangelista testified. “It is no secret that the plaza is not the most aesthetically pleasing sight in the downtown area. Although Consumer Affairs partnered with the Department of Tourism and bought and made tents available to the vendors for the sake of uniformity, the plaza still presents an eyesore to most locals and visitors alike.”
Sen. Athneil Thomas told him, “I am glad that you recognize it is an eyesore.”
Alani Henneman Todman, director of communications for the Department of Tourism said, “We are very supportive of efforts to ensure that Vendors Plaza continues to be a positive focal point of our tourism product. We continue to encourage efforts to ensure the plaza is kept clean and welcoming for locals and visitors alike. Also, because Vendors’ Plaza sits in the heart of our historical downtown Charlotte Amalie, ongoing maintenance and upkeep are critical.”
Evangelista sees a problem with his department overseeing the plaza. He said his department has no employees or expertise in property management or maintenance.
Todman said Tourism did not have that expertise either, but would be willing to assist a department with property management skills in developing the site or moving the vendors.
Chapman saw no need to move vendors, she testified.
“My suggestion is to leave Vendors’ Plaza exactly where it is,” Chapman said. “The Emancipation Vendors Cultural Plaza can be made into a beautiful location with the vendors offering island crafts and other bargain merchandise, the locals and tourists are always looking for bargains and they know they can find such goods at the vendors plaza.”
Evangelista said there was room for 64 vendors at the Plaza and 45 now operate there. They each pay an annual fee of $200 and are responsible for maintenance of the area. The Department of Parks and Recreation hauls the trash away. Presently there are no nearby public bathroom facilities. He added that he was working on getting Port-A-Potties in the area for a short-term solution and bathroom facilities in a nearby building as a long-term solution.
A long-term solution for the vendors is probably several years away, after the Main Street and waterfront renovation of Charlotte Amalia is complete. Until that time movable kiosks might be the solution, Evangelista said. He showed the senators an artist’s rendering of what the plaza could look like with the kiosks. The rendering was drawn at the request of the previous administration.
Evangelista said doing the necessary landscape changes and buying the kiosks would cost the government around $3 million.
Evangelista has meet with vendors twice since he assumed office to seek their input on possible changes. At these meetings copies of the rules and regulations governing Vendors’ Plaza were distributed. He said he had reports of vendors, after obtaining a spot, leasing the spot for a higher price to another vendor. He said he will investigate to find any violations.
An annual drawing is held to rotate vendors. All vendors are required to draw for spots, except the four food vendors whose spots are fixed and permanent. There are also three smaller spots for hair braiders, who do not take part in the annual drawing.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory asked about the sale of locally produced products at the plaza. Todman said the requirement was 10 percent and added, “It is imperative that percentage be increased.” Frett-Gregory agreed with her.
Todman told the senators the plaza is an important part of the territory’s tourism product.
“Vendors Plaza is a mainstay of the visitor experience in St. Thomas. It provides visitors with an inviting open-air space to secure mementos of their experience in St. Thomas. It also allows Virgin Islanders to display their creative diversity as they sell produce, arts and crafts,” Todman said.
Attending the hearing were Sens. Alicia Barnes, Wayne DeGraff, Frett-Gregory, Stedmann Hodge, Jr., Jackson, Janelle Sarauw, Oakland Benta, Steven Payne, and Thomas.