“You’re doing great things and things are looking bright in the Virgin Islands,” Sen. Javan James, chair of the Economic Development and Agriculture Committee, said after he opened the committee’s hearing on the status of the V.I. Research and Technology Park and the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources, Wednesday morning.
Peter Chapman, RTPark chief executive officer, was joined by staff who helped explain the variety of ongoing projects.
The RTPark is over 20 years old and is an independent economic development corporation established by the V.I. Legislature to improve the economy with projects focused on technology and agriculture research.
The organization is an independent affiliate of the University of the Virgin Islands, Chapman said and has generated $13.5 million in financial support for UVI over the years.
Chapman and his team discussed seven programs starting with Accelerate VI, a three-month program to help start-up tech companies grow their V.I. businesses through mentoring and access to a workspace.
“Thus far, we’ve worked with 22 startups who have increased their revenue more than $2.6 million and raised more than $7 million in capital,” Chapman said.
Later in the testimony, answering a question from Sen. Angel Bolques, Eric Sonnier, director of RTPark entrepreneurship, said half of the companies are no longer in business, but they raised impressive money.
“The winners became real big winners,” Sonnier said.
In the future, Chapman said they want to find a way to introduce ride-share services to the territory and commended James for his previous efforts to expand transportation options, especially after 7 p.m. when most taxi vans shut down.
Another program, the VI STEM Kids, teaches school-age children the basic concepts of coding and last year held classes for 130 students from the Caribbean Centers for Boys and Girls of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas and St. Croix. This year, around 200 children will be enrolled in the program.
The most ambitious program, Tech Village, was conceptualized over the last four years and will be built on 27 acres across from the UVI St. Croix Campus. When completed, it will consist of 20,000 square feet of office and research/development space as well as farmland to be used by agriculture research companies. Also planned are 66 units of housing and Chapman said around 300 new jobs. Financial backing will come from Dwight Capital – a HUD-backed mortgage lender- and hopefully a grant from the V.I. Housing Finance Authority. The estimated cost of the first phase alone is $42.7 million.
Chapman added that the program will target young farmers, but the new housing will be available to “first come, first served.”
Other RTPark programs include Virgin Islands STEM Talent Archive, in partnership with the V.I. Labor Department – a portal for connecting Virgin Islanders on the mainland with potential jobs in the territory. Initially, the targeted cities are Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Houston and Miami. So far, 169 people have registered and 97 employers have expressed interest.
People will be able to research jobs, housing, schools, and funding, Sydney Powell, senior marketing manager, said.
“You can have a good life through VISTA and STEM.”
With $5 million from the V.I. Government, another program, the Catalyst Fund revolving loan pool, has dispersed almost $2 million to help larger businesses and real estate development ventures. Next, they will apply for a $30 million CDBG-DR or mitigation grant to encourage more construction.
Also during the hearing, senators learned RTPark has 14 full-time employees, five or six contractors and a summer intern.
Chapman outlined a couple of future programs that have been discussed, but haven’t been implemented, stating, “We can’t work on anything else that is a heavy lift until we break ground on the Tech Village.”
The afternoon hearing was devoted to DPNR and the Division of Fish and Wildlife, with Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol and Director Nicole Angeli testifying.
Oriol told senators there are currently 250 commercial fishers in the territory who use 30 different ports. Additionally, there are 135 charter companies that allow guests to take wahoo, mahi and snapper, with most charters out of St.Thomas.
In 2021 and 2022, the most popular fish in both districts was the spiny lobster, with 140,820 pounds and 121,395 pounds caught, respectively. St. Croix’s most popular species are mahi, conch, wahoo and stoplight parrotfish. Queen triggerfish, red hind, yellowtail snapper and blue runner are the top species in St. Thomas and St. John, he said.
“Reasons these fish stocks differ include the bathymetry of the ocean floor, the gear types predominantly used in each district and the composition and configuration of coral reef and seagrass habitats and consumer demand,” Oriol said.
The commissioner also reported on department funding to replace infrastructure. The design for the launch ramp in Hull Bay is 90 percent complete and they hope to begin construction in 2024. The Frederiksted Fish Marker will undergo redesign and reconstruction. The boat launch and a new fish market at Kraus Lagoon will be built in partnership with the V.I. Port Authority. Oriol also announced repairs to the pier in Gallows Bay will commence in the next few weeks.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, DPNR, in conjunction with the Economic Development Authority, distributed $93,356 to fishers who could show their average sales pre-pandemic and their losses in 2020.
“Because our fishery caters to our local economy, many of our fishers continued to be the primary source of seafood for many residents and, in many cases, reported more sales during that time period cementing their role in our community as indispensable to our food security,” Oriol said.
In response to a question from Sen. James, Oriol said he will have a meeting with fishers on June 29 and 30 to talk about regulations. Compared to some other areas in the Caribbean, Virgin Islands waters are highly regulated. There are required monthly catch reports, port samples and spot checks at the fishermen’s markets.
After the hurricanes, NOAA gave $10.6 million to DPNR for fishers and they’re dispersing the final amount soon, Angeli said.
Because of surveys by the Coastal Zone Management and Fish and Wildlife, the UVI, the National Park Service, NOAA and other researchers, there is evidence that the fisheries are sustainable but the habitats are rapidly deteriorating, Oriol said. He added that the commercial fishers know enough not to overfish.
“We’re not overfishing. We feed ourselves and our guests,” he said. “The numbers don’t support commercial fishers are overfishing.”
Sen. Bolques asked about the possibility of fish farming as “another way to ensure food sustainability.”
Coral nurseries and artificial coral are being used to help reefs recover.
Angeli answered there is also a plan to develop container aquaculture systems with a grant from the Office of Insular Affairs. It will begin with a 40-foot container and eventually be a huge warehouse, she said.
First, rules and regulations need to be drafted, “so we do it right the first time,” she said.
Sens. Javan E. James Sr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Diane T. Capehart, and Angel Bolques, Jr. attended Wednesday’s hearing. Sens. Dwayne M. DeGraff. Marvin A. Blyden and Donna Frett-Gregory were excused.