Coki Point beach to shut down for upgrades

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 ST. THOMAS — One of the island’s main tourist attractions will be closed next month for 10 days to undergo a major overhaul, Gov. John deJongh Jr. announced Thursday at a press conference.
 When it reopens, Coki Point beach is expected to have enhanced aesthetics, improved facilities and a regular police presence.
 The Aug. 2 closure of the beach and other nearby points of interest, including Coral World Ocean Park, is deJongh’s 10-day action plan for the Coki Point area.
 “This strategy includes items of immediate action, some already under way, as well as action items of a longer term,” deJongh said in a prepared speech. “Taken together, we are confident that the neighborhood known as Coki Point will be safer and cleaner, its traffic and legal businesses better managed and regulated, and its illegal businesses gone. Our efforts must involve both those who live in the area and who work there. Our goal will be to make this entire area, including the magnificent beach that has for generations drawn residents and visitors alike, a place where all will feel welcomed and safe.”
 The plan to refurbish Coki Point was prompted by threats from representatives in the cruise industry to stop selling tours to Coki Point following the July 12 killing of a local resident, 18-year-old Shaheel Joseph and 14-year-old Liz Marie Perez Chaparro, a passenger on the Carnival Victory, who was visiting from Puerto Rico with her family to celebrate her birthday.
 On July 12, a gun battle erupted during a burial service, just a stone’s throw away from the entrance to Coki Point beach.
 DeJongh said he has ordered an investigation into the incident.
 “I have already ordered a prompt and thorough inquiry into police performance at the time of the events last week, in particular with a focus on the planning may or may not have been possible in advance of what occurred, as well as the actions of the officers on the scene at the time of and after the event,” deJongh said. “This inquiry will also look into the preparation and performance of the Special Operations Bureau of the police department. Once I have the results of this inquiry, I will be able — with the participation and advice of the commissioner — to decide what changes are needed, who might be a candidate for reassignment or retraining and similar actions.”
 The commissioners of the V.I. Police and V.I. Tourism departments met last weekend in Florida with representatives of the cruise lines, as well as other cruise industry stakeholder, to outline their plans to make St. Thomas safer and to ensure that the incident did not tarnish the island’s tourism industry.
 Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty, who was also in attendance at Thursday’s press conference, said the discussion with the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association is ongoing.
 “We had three conversations this week with FCCA. We continue our enhanced communication with them,” she said. “They have provided us with additional opportunities to reach out to their membership, and we have committed to them that we will discuss early next week our marketing strategies from before.”
 The plans to “clean up” Coki beach and its environs — which will be undertaken by the V.I. Police Department, the Attorney General’s Office, the Housing, Parks and Recreation Department, the Public Works Department and the Waste Management Authority — include maintaining the presence of three officers in the area during business hours; installing surveillance cameras; utilizing intermittent K-9 patrols; assessing the need to install additional environmentally sensitive lighting for security measures; and executing measures to alleviate traffic congestion.
 With available police manpower already stretched thinly, V.I. Police Commissioner Novelle Francis Jr. said this approach would require juggling of resources.
 “Certainly the recent graduation of the class allowed us to deploy some additional resources and manpower into that area,” Francis said.
 Rehashing the events of July 12, which he characterized as “an act of vigilantism,” Francis said, although police cannot predict or prevent all acts of violence, his department will continue to swiftly investigate, apprehend and prosecute the perpetrators of crimes in the community.
 During the media briefing, Francis rolled out his department’s Tourist Safety Operational Plan which includes increased patrols and presence of police units in destination areas, traffic enforcement and surveillance cameras.
 “There have been some plans for Coki Point beach since last year by Housing, Parks and Recreation, but, because of family disputes, they had to delay their work,” Francis said, in response to The Daily News asking why only now are there plans to clean up Coki beach, although there have been numerous complaints in the past about the criminal activity in the area.
 Francis also addressed the possibility that cleaning up Coki will push the criminals somewhere else on the island.
 “We have to keep them on the run,” he told The Daily News. “Once they move someplace else, then they could expect the police will be there as well. We can’t allow them to thrive with these types of criminal undertakings.”
 In his prepared remarks Thursday, Francis also defended his operational safety plan, which primarily address measures to protect tourists, as opposed to tackling criminal activity affecting locals territorywide.
 “The Virgin Islands Police Department will be diligent in our pursuit to protect every person within our borders, and I want to state clearly that we will make these streets safe for our residents, and this will transcend to safety for our tourists and visitors alike,” Francis said at the press conference.
 The V.I. Housing, Parks and Recreation Department, in collaboration with the V.I. Public Works Department, has been mandated to undertake the rehabilitation and restoration of the beach by curtailing vendor operations for 10 days during the clean up; fixing the fence around the parking area; landscaping key areas; ensuring the removal of debris on V.I. government property; evaluating and selecting a vendor to reconstruct the beach bathroom; ensuring portable bathroom stalls are on-site; ensuring that the roadside is cleaned up; and continuing the project plan for a new vendor pavilion and boardwalk on government property.
 Commissioner of Housing, Parks and Recreation St. Clair Williams is confident that most of the work could be achieved within the 10-day closure period.
 “For the renovation of the restrooms, that bid has opened today through Property and Procurement,” Williams said. “In terms of the fencing, all of that will be taken care of. Portable restrooms are already in place. For the landscaping, we’ll be going up there and cleaning up the area, cutting down and trimming trees. From Housing, we’ll have one crew dealing with fencing, another dealing with shrubbery, and we’ll be communicating with Public Works to see if they can provide crews to help with the roadside cleanup,” he said.
 Williams also sought to dispel any notion that the Coki Point enhancement project is a reaction to the July 12 killings.
 “Work at Coki Point isn’t something that just started,” he said. “Since last year, we’ve been working on that facility. First, we had to get a coastal zone management permit; that was issued last year. Then, we were able to move ahead with the archaeological survey, and now that’s completed, we’re moving on to stage two. Work at Coki Point has been ongoing.”
 As part of the cleanup exercise, deJongh also commissioned the V.I. Justice Department to draft legislation to prohibit business solicitation on public roadways and beaches.
 Additionally, the V.I. Waste Management Authority has been charged to identify space for trash bins and schedule removal.
 Despite the multi-agency mandates, Peter Jackson, owner of Coki Point Dive Shop, was not impressed with the governor’s plans for Coki Beach.
 “The whole problem with Coki Beach was created by Housing, Parks and Recreation. They haven’t enforced anything. There is selling of drugs, harassment of tourists, sexual harassment of women. They allowed the problems to fester,” Jackson said. “This is a problem that has been going on for 20 years. They’ve basically ignored Coki Beach. They came up with this police providing security. What does that mean?”
 Jackson characterized the government response as being after-the fact and misleading.
 I think they are reacting to what happened on July 12,” he said. “What happened had nothing to do with the beach. What happened there could have happened anywhere else on the island. They’re reacting to the cruise ships. For the cruise ships now to say not to come out to Coki is lying to the customers. Coki is no less safe nor more safe than it was before the shooting,” Jackson said.
 Jackson also took issue with the vendors having to close for the renovation.
 “We’re taking a financial loss by closing for 10 days. I asked the commissioner of Housing why we had to close to clean up Coki Beach when he had three years to do this,” he said. “Why do they have to close a week to cut down trees and beautify the area; that should have been done for the last two years.”
 Jackson, who lives at Coki Point and has operated the dive shop for several years, dismissed Williams’ claim that work at Coki Beach has been “ongoing.”
 “There hasn’t been a thing going on there for two years,” he said. “There hasn’t been a decent Housing, Parks and Recreation commissioner in 20 years that’s really done anything. There are no lifeguards, no buoys like they have on Lindquist Beach and Magens Bay.”
 Jackson said the crime problem is more widespread than the July 12 killings at Coki Point.
 “They need to make St. Thomas more safe. That means taking guns away from people,” Jackson said. “There are far more shootings on other parts of the island than at Coki Point. Coki is not an unsafe area. I live at Coki Point and I feel safe walking around Coki.”
 The governor’s press office did not return numerous phone calls Thursday afternoon and evening seeking comment for this article.


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