Virgin Islanders weighed in on the future of tourism and economic development Wednesday night in the last of three virtual town halls hosted by the UVI Center for Excellence in Leadership and Learning.
The government has engaged UVI CELL, as it is known, in the creation of a 5-year USVI Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy and Master Tourism Plan, and the town halls were held to get feedback from the community about where the territory should be headed, and what needs to change.
Wednesday’s town hall was focused on St. Thomas residents, with previous sessions addressing St. Croix and St. John. Those who were unable to attend one of the virtual sessions are encouraged to offer their views by completing a survey online. The deadline is Sept. 30.
“Your contribution is critical in order for us to shape what the community would be looking for over the next five years,” said Dr. Paul Flemming, assistant professor of business management at UVI and co-lead of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy and Tourism Master Plan. He was joined by Dr. Suzanne Darrow-Magras, director of UVI CELL and co-lead of the Tourism Master Plan, and Caroline Simon, the center’s marketing manager, who moderated the discussion.
More than two dozen people attended Wednesday’s two-hour session, some by phone, some by Zoom, offering frank answers to nine questions addressing everything from what the USVI does well when it comes to economic development and tourism, to what it could do better, to priorities going forward and creating opportunities for the private sector.
Overwhelmingly, participants said St. Thomas needs fewer jewelry stores, a far greater focus on its culture, history, agriculture and environment, and a more affordable cost of living so that young Virgin Islanders can remain in the territory and realize the dream of home ownership.
“We need to be more self-sufficient,” said Lev Horodyskyj in the chat room of the Zoom meeting. “I should be able to buy local fish, local fruits and vegetables, and other local products at the supermarket, not just imports from elsewhere.”
“This needs to be a crossroads,” said attorney Tom Bolt, referring to the chance for a reset after the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria that has brought millions in federal funding to the territory, and now the COVID-19 pandemic that has changed how business and everything else is conducted in the Virgin Islands and the world.
“We need this to be a dividing line where we say, no, not anymore,” said Bolt, arguing that the V.I. show itself in its products, in its agriculture, cooking and culture. “Hopefully we’re going to go into a new economic development, a new tourism, in the near future.”
“I agree with sustainable tourism,” said Valerie Peters, via chat. “There are huge opportunities in green tourism. Global networks that specialize in this market. These travelers seek authentic experiences which would support local culture and foster local businesses that would ensure a sustainable future.”
“The Virgin Islands promotes itself as a jewelry territory and rum,” said Erminie George, to agreement from fellow participants.
“We do not offer anything unique and there is an overemphasis on jewelry,” said Karen Brown, a speech language pathologist who also decried the bureaucracy involved in starting a business in the Virgin Islands. Her advice to fellow entrepreneurs? “Give yourself a year, a year and a half, to get up and running, because that’s how long it takes,” said Brown.
Developing downtown Charlotte Amalie into a live-work community and a focus on quality over quantity of tourists would go a long way to revitalizing the economy, participants agreed.
“Downtown needs to be like it was years ago,” said Bolt, with an emphasis on small hotels and bed and breakfasts, a moratorium on jewelry stores and a better mix of small businesses. Developing Long Bay to accommodate more and bigger cruise ships is ludicrous when the government should be promoting the environment, said Bolt, not adding 7,000 more tourists to an already-congested town “who do not bring in the dollars you think they [do].”
“The bread is in the bed,” said Bolt, emphasizing the need to invest in hotels, and slamming those properties that have failed to reopen after the hurricanes of 2017 but still receive Economic Development Commission benefits. “The EDC needs to play hardball with them,” and if they have not rebuilt, they need to start paying taxes, said Bolt.
Bolt praised the recent completion of Phase 1 of the Veterans Drive Improvement Project that has created a walkable promenade along the St. Thomas Harbor, noting that he now sees dozens of people exercising in the morning. The project, slated for completion in 2021, was the result of a multi-day charette held in 2010 on the topic of revitalizing downtown Charlotte Amalie.
“You can see people are walking. I think that’s a good thing … the walkability of Charlotte Amalie is quite important.”
It’s a good start, participants agreed, but more needs to be done, such as better parking and the renovation of abandoned buildings to make the downtown a place where people want to both live and work. “That will create a better mix and you’ll get a hardware store and a dry cleaner,” said Bolt.
Mark Wenner, chief economist for the Office of Management and Budget, said a lot of cities have urban decay, but the government can turn that around by buying abandoned buildings and offering them at cheap rent for “urban pioneers … and give opportunity to younger people.”
“Looking to the future … what does the Virgin Islands have as a comparative advantage compared to other Caribbean islands?” Wenner asked. The long-held strategy of offering tax incentives in return for investment – as many countries in the region do – “is a race to the bottom,” with no tax revenues for years on end, said Wenner. More small and medium-size businesses will generate more income tax, he noted. “We can’t be living off one industry and government spending” — there needs to be a more diversified economy.
“The economic breaks must be shared with small businesses, not just EDC [companies], who should eventually become regular tax contributors like V.I. small businesses,” said Stacy Bourne, via chat.
Creating that middle class and entrepreneurship requires a better education system that teaches financial literacy starting in elementary school – how to build credit, apply for a loan, and invest in real estate – embraces technology, and provides opportunities for mentorship and training of young people, participants widely agreed.
The territory needs to address the extremely high cost of living and reject the idea that “bigger is better,” said Reuben Molloy. “When Kmart decides that it is no longer profitable (to operate in the Virgin Islands), they will pull out and leave us with a big gap” after destroying smaller businesses that cannot compete with large chain stores, he said. “We need to develop the private sector.”
That means combating so-called “brain drain” by creating an education system, economy and environment where young Virgin Islanders can flourish, rather than leave for the mainland because they can own a home or start a business more easily and affordably there.
There needs to be “pathways for our students to successful, impactful, and dignified careers on-island,” said Horodyskyj.
“Say to the Gov.: Create and prop up a farming localized industry. Focus on education, we cannot expect to survive if our kids are not educated to carry our islands further,” said a poster named Ehnah, via chat. “Economical collapse is coming, stop kicking the can down the road with more loans, deal with the issue now and cut costs.”
“In these rooms of decision-making … we must protect our people, we must protect our people’s land … it must belong to our people,” said Ehnah.