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St. John Cuts The Ribbon On Its First Major Recovery Project, A Senior Center

CRUZ BAY — A beloved but storm-torn building on St. John, George Simmons Terrace Community Center had its ribbon-cutting on Thursday with Governor Albert Bryan doing the honors after a stem-to-stern renovation by the Virgin Islands Housing Authority (VIHA) in partnership with the Office of Disaster Recovery.

At about 2,000 square feet in total, the building located in St. John’s Estate Adrian neighborhood may be small in size but it is large in the lives of local seniors, VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham said.

“St. Johnian seniors are integral to the community fabric, helping to raise the next generation and working in many local businesses. Our board was in whole-hearted agreement to get this project done and done right,” Graham said.

FEMA approved $83.1 million for recovery projects through its Public Assistance Program last September. Close to $950,000 of that was obligated to housing.

“The process of applying for and being reimbursed by FEMA is exacting, requiring thorough documentation at every step,” Noreen Michael, chairwoman of VIHA’s Board of Commissioners, said. “I am proud of our VIHA team for accomplishing this.”

Governor Albert A. Bryan, Jr.

VIHA contractor Custom Builders of St. Thomas completed the renovation in seven months for $603,654, giving it a new roof, new ceilings and sheet rock, hurricane windows and doors, new lights and ceiling fans, air conditioning and insulation it didn’t have before, as well as a space for a planned computer facility, new bath and shower, and handicapped-accessible kitchen.

“We are excited to celebrate the fruits of VIHA’s labor to rebuild after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. Commencing construction and the completion of the project are the focus for year four of the recovery,” Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien said.  “We appreciate the funding obligated from FEMA in November 2019,  and applaud the VIHA for its perseverance in navigating the federal process to restore this much needed and anticipated facility.”

Built in 1985, the Center first served a 25-unit public housing community, George Simmons Terrace. In 1996, the residents were given an opportunity to purchase the homes; many still live in them  today. The Center took on a new role in 2008 as a senior facility run by the Virgin Islands Department of Human Services, whose staff are eager to return.

“It is difficult to adequately express how critical this collaborative effort to rebuild and re-open the Center is,” said Human Services (DHS) Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez said. “It has been the heartbeat of the St. John community and our seniors for many, many years.”

The DHS Adrian Senior Center is where the agency provided warm, nutritious meals and activities to promote the seniors’ physical and mental health, Causey-Gomez said.

“Losing it was devastating. We applaud the V.I. Housing Authority and all the other government agencies involved who recognized the need to prioritize this recovery project,” she said.

As many as forty seniors, ages 60 to 92, were regular Center visitors before both hurricanes destroyed the building, according to DHS Assistant Commissioner Michal Rhymer-Browne.

“The reconstructed facility gives our St. John Seniors a wonderful space to return to and honors their strength and foundational contributions, especially in the midst of this distressing and isolating pandemic,” Rhymer-Browne said. 

Director of the Office of Disaster Recovery Adrienne L. Williams-Octalien

The Center represents the first major recovery project for St. John on the governor’s top 100 list, as well as the first major recovery project for the Virgin Islands Housing Authority.

Others will soon follow, not only here, but across the territory as millions of dollars in FEMA obligations and HUD Community Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds are released.

On St. Thomas, Tutu High Rise residents who suffered the loss of 300 units of housing will see the first replacement project — a brand new apartment community at Estate Donoe — break ground this January, Chairperson Michael said.

More recovery projects will follow in quick succession on St. Croix: the rehabilitation and revitalization of rental apartments at Walter I.M. Hodge Pavilion, 110 apartments at D. Hamilton Jackson Terrace, 26 apartments at Alphonso “Piggy” Gerard Place; the new construction of 128 senior apartments and 185 multi-family apartments at a newly purchased site in Stony Ground; and at William’s Delight Villas, the rehab of 100 single-family homes with improvements to allow for possible homeownership. On St. Thomas, with the demolition of the first five buildings at Estate Tutu underway, the new master planned Tutu community will include approximately 262 new residential apartments, a community center and outdoor recreation facilities.

“It has taken a long time and a lot of sacrifices and hard work to arrive at this point in the recovery effort,” Michael said. “I believe the major projects now at hand will help the territory’s residents recover from the hurricanes not only physically, but also in spirit.” 

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