But after the Navy left on May 1, 2003, interest in helping boost the island's economy waned, said Emeric, blaming both the U.S. and local government.
Even the domain of the island's official government website, which translates to "Vieques Revival," is up for sale. Emeric said many local residents are still trying to find their economic footing as they seek to develop land formerly under naval control.
He dismissed criticism that American investors are the only ones reaping economic benefits, saying, "Many North Americans are here because the Viequenses themselves sold them the land."
Of the 23,000 acres (9,300 hectares) that the Navy began to use for target practice in the early 1940s, 4,000 acres (1,619 hectares) have been awarded to Vieques municipality, 3,100 acres (1,255 hectares) went to the U.S. Department of the Interior and about 800 acres (324 hectares) to the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust.
The Navy has so far cleaned 2,540 acres (1,028 hectares), with the operation expected to run through at least 2025 in one of the Navy's most extensive rehabilitation efforts, budgeted at some $350 million.
"The Navy considers Vieques to be its highest priority in the munitions cleanup program," said Dan Waddill, who is managing the process. "Vieques gets by far the most effort and the highest amount of funding."
Waddill oversees 55 employees who work Monday through Friday cleaning 15,000 acres (6,070 hectares) of the former bombing range, mostly in the island's east. He noted that two-thirds of the workers are from Vieques.
He suggested it will be impossible to find all of the abandoned munition parts.
"We don't expect to leave anything behind that people might come into contact with, but there are layers of safety that prevent that kind of contact just in case something happens to be missed," said Waddill. "When you're covering a large area ... that's just life. Sometimes you don't find everything."