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Originally published Wednesday, May 22, 2013 at 2:55 PM

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Puerto Rico's Culebra awaits new hospital, school

Puerto Rico's tiny island of Culebra has been forever dependent on the U.S. territory for food, jobs and health care, but the territory's governor is cutting some of those strings.

Associated Press

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico —

Puerto Rico's tiny island of Culebra has been forever dependent on the U.S. territory for food, jobs and health care, but the territory's governor is cutting some of those strings.

Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said this week that the island will get its first hospital and large-scale recycling center, as well as a new movie theater and a new middle school and high school.

"These are not promises," he said. "We are announcing the start of these projects."

With an initial $10.7 million investment, Padilla aims to make the sister island of Culebra the first municipality to become energy self-sufficient by building a $3.1 million recycling center that will convert 85 percent of all solid waste produced there to energy.

Culebra's mayor on Wednesday praised the project, saying it's part of a larger push to renovate the sleepy island of white-sand beaches and turquoise waters that draws thousands of tourists every year.

"This is going to have a great impact, especially because it's tied to educating the public about protecting the environment," Mayor Ivan Solis said.

The announcement comes as Puerto Rico's tourism company begins to market Culebra as a top destination for ecotourism in the Caribbean. The island lies just 17 miles (27 kilometers) east of Puerto Rico.

Construction of the recycling center is expected to begin this year and will likely take about two years, said Agustin Carbo, executive director of the Puerto Rican government's Solid Waste Authority. Once the center starts operating, officials expect to permanently close Culebra's sole landfill, which is located near renowned Flamenco Beach.

Solis said the landfill is already overflowing and will be forced to close by 2015, leaving the island no choice but to start recycling. Shortly after being sworn in as Culebra's mayor earlier in January, Solis opened a small recycling center and launched an education campaign encouraging people to use it.

Culebra also is awaiting the opening of its first hospital.

Garcia said he has transferred to the municipality of Culebra the ownership of an abandoned 41,000-square-foot (3,800-square-meter) building that had belonged to the Puerto Rico government's Industrial Development Co.

National Guard troops have been tapped to help convert the building into a hospital that is expected to open by 2015 and feature several health clinics, along with a police station and helipad.

Culebra's estimated 1,800 residents currently must to travel to Puerto Rico's main island by ferry or airplane if they need a dentist, gynecologist, obstetrician or X-rays, among other things, Solis said.

"There are a lot of services that we don't have here," he said.

Garcia also announced that his administration has signed a $1.5 million contract to provide ongoing ferry service to Culebra, and that the number of daily trips between Puerto Rico and Culebra will increase during the high season.

Solis said he was relieved to hear the news, given that maritime transportation is his biggest concern.

"Culebra depends on tourism, it's what sustains the island," he said.

In other efforts to revitalize the tiny island, Garcia plans to reinstate public school transportation and open a new middle school and high school to replace existing ones by August. He also plans to open an additional movie theater on the island which now has just one small theater and has pledged $300,000 in subsidies and loans to help create 50 small businesses and generate 145 new jobs.

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