COMMITTEE RECEIVES UPDATE ON HORSE RACING IN THE TERRITORY, CONSIDERS BILL TO ESTABLISH DIVISION OF TERRITORIAL PARKS AND PROTECTED AREAS

Published: Jun 28, 2022

ST. CROIX- Members of the Committee on Youth, Sports, Parks, and Recreation, led by Senator Samuel Carrión met at the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room.

In Block 1, the Committee received testimony regarding the state of the Virgin Islands Horse Racing Industry, including but not limited to the franchise and development agreements for the Randall “Doc” James Racetrack and the Clinton E. Phipps Racetrack.

Elroy Bates Jr, the President of the Flamboyant Park Horsemen Association delivered testimony. Bates voiced frustration, stating that the progress was slow and stagnant. The last time that a race was held on the island of St. Croix was on August 6, 2017. Bates also informed the body that the riders were continuing to breed and maintain their horses over the past five years, despite rising costs.

Calvert White, the Commissioner of the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation (DSPR) delivered additional testimony. White reminded the body that in 2016, the Government of the Virgin Islands executed a franchise agreement with VIGL to be the lease holder and the promoter of horse racing tracks in St. Thomas and St. Croix. Before this agreement, the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation was responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Clinton Phipps racetrack. This agreement removed responsibilities from the department and was assumed by VIGL. The four employees stationed at the Clinton Phipps facility were transferred or reassigned. In 2019, VIGL notified GVI that they would no longer be responsible for the track maintenance and would return those responsibilities to the GVI. Due to a lack of human and equipment resources, DSPR has not been able to maintain the facility. It has been overgrown with grass and bushes. White stated that minimal to no movement has been seen on the track by VIGL after horses and persons were removed from the track in June 2021.

Testimony was read into the record for Hugo Hodge Jr, the Chairman of the VI Horse Racing Commission. Per Hodge’s testimony, the VI Horse Racing Commission satisfied many of its mandates immediately before the impact of COVID-19. In January 2020, the racing staff positions were considered and approved in their respective jurisdictions. Additionally, in February 2020, the racing rules and regulations, rules regarding drug testing (anti-doping), arrangements for the training of track personnel, approved OTB locations, and successful negotiations that would have created a temporary racing schedule were considered. Carnival races would have taken place on May 1, 2020. These rules and regulations as well as the antidoping policy were shared with horse owners in both districts. In-person meetings were expected and scheduled to receive feedback on the policies. However, these were put on hold due to the impacts of COVID-19. Hodge’s testimony stated that the GVI chose to focus only on the Randall “Doc” James facility on St. Croix. Horse owners were told to leave the premises in June 2021 so that construction could begin, However, extraordinarily little progress has been made as the one-year mark is approaching. GVI has also come to an agreement on the St. Thomas that settles the lawsuit and allows the GVI to develop the Clinton E. Phipps Facility. The commission has made plans to clear the running surface, infield, and maintain the mangrove utilizing funds from the Horse Racing improvement fund.

Shaine Gaspard, the COO of Southland Gaming of the Virgin Islands delivered additional testimony. SGVI has been working with the Department of Property and Procurement on behalf of the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation on the development of a formal access agreement. It is expected that that agreement will be completed in a few weeks. Since the passage of Bill No. 8577 and the governor’s signing, the primary contractors and vendors have been reengaged and work that had started prior is now in progress of being completed. SGVI has been collaborating with engineers and manufacturers on the design of the grandstands and has selected a manufacturer. Throughout June 2022, representatives have met with various contractors and officials at the racetrack to discuss current and future construction activities and work related to the project, as well as necessary steps to return horse racing in 2022.

Senator Carrión urged the administration to move quickly so that horse racing could resume in both districts.

In Block 2, the Committee considered Bill No. 34-0267, an act amending the Virgin Islands Code, Title 3, chapter 18, section 302 relating the duties of the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation to include the duty to develop neighborhood parks or recreation areas primarily designed to provide facilities for team, recreational or individual sports; amending title 3, chapter 22 section 401 to direct the Department to identify, supervise, administer, manage, regulate and control all sites within the Territorial Parks System: amending title 32, chapter 2 to establish the Division of Territorial Parks and Protected Areas within the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to establish and maintain a Territorial Parks System: amending title 33. Chapter Ill to establish in the Treasury of the Virgin Islands, The Territorial Parks System Revolving Fund, and the Recreational Parks Revolving Fund, repealing title 3. section 308, title 32. chapter 4; and for other related purposes. This measure was sponsored by Senator Samuel Carrión.

Jean-Pierre Oriol, Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources gave testimony supporting the measure. The department fully endorsed the legislation, stating that the Virgin Islands’ unique habitats and ecosystems and the cultural and historical resources of the Virgin Islands are not further destroyed by any development and are protected for future generations of the Virgin Islands. The Department has envisioned that these recreational areas will be developed in furtherance of activities including, but not limited to picnicking, hiking, biking, horseback riding, environmental education, sightseeing, boating fishing, swimming, and similar recreational facilities. This newly established system of parks would not be responsible for the development of neighborhood parks or recreation areas that were designed to provide facilities for team or individual sports, which would be entrusted to the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation.

Calvert White, the Commissioner of the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation added testimony in support of the measure. White stated that the implementation of this bill would allow the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation to focus primarily on its sporting facilities, while still delivering full support to the DPNR. While this measure is being considered, the DPNR would continue to work on the territory’s Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan to ensure that the new department would receive federal funding. This plan is a five-year plan that evaluates the demand and supply of outdoor recreation resources in the territory, and identifies investment properties for acquiring, developing, and protecting outdoor recreation resources. The most recent TCORP expired in 2019.

Vincent Richards, the Deputy Commissioner of Property & Printing at the Department of Property and Procurement delivered testimony on behalf of Anthony D. Thomas, the Commissioner of the Department of Property and Procurement. The Department supported the measure. The measure would divide responsibilities and clarify roles regarding public parks between the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation. It has been understood that DPNR would have the responsibility for territorial parks and protected areas, as defined in the proposed measure, and that DSPR would maintain responsibility for neighborhood parks and other areas for individual recreational use. The measure would task the Department of Planning and Natural Resources with formulating and executing a long-range comprehensive conservation plan to acquire, maintain, preserve, and protect where appropriate, privately, and public owned properties that are suitable for development as parks and recreation programs for the proposed territorial parks system, and would be suitable for outdoor leisure activities. The measure was voted upon favorably and will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Senators present at today’s committee meeting included Samuel Carrión, Dwayne M. Degraff, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Kenneth L. Gittens, Javan E. James, Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, and Genevieve R. Whitaker.

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