July 28, 2005 – Helping to turn budget hearings into a forum for economic development on Thursday, West Indian Company Ltd. president Edward E. Thomas told senators that increased cruise ship activity in the next year will help to rebuild St. Croix and sustain St. Thomas' growing economy.
Thomas said there were 1.7 million visitors to the territory this year and added that this number would only pick up as more cruise ships are built and contracted to visit the Virgin Islands.
"After September 11, 2001, many companies decided not to build new cruise ships until late in 2005-2006. It takes about three years to build a mega-ship of the variety we see today so, new ships should really be entering the territory in 2007."
Because of this, Thomas predicted 2.9 million visitors in 2006, and told senators not to be discouraged by a recent slow-down in cruise activity. "Last week, I know there were four days when St. Thomas didn't see any cruise ships That's never happened to us before. It's because cruise lines are marketing internationally, organizing trips to Europe and Asia. But once the new ships are out, there should be a shift back to the Eastern Caribbean."
Thomas added that in order to harness the same type of activity for St. Croix, an aggressive marketing strategy should be implemented. "You have to advertise the destination, sell the port," Thomas said. "To do that, it takes everybody, all members of the community, to make St. Croix a place where passengers are going to want to go."
Thomas said that WICO, the port agent for cruise lines that come into St. Thomas and St. John, did its part by marketing St. Croix at the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association's annual conference in June. "I told representatives about the work that's happening over there, the renovation projects, and said that the new facilities will be some of the best the territory has to offer. Now, it's up to them to tell their marketing departments so that they can determine whether passengers want to come there."
While capital projects for St. Croix are primarily being executed by the Public Finance Authority WICO's parent organization — Thomas told senators that the island would also have to develop other "niches" in order to attract tourists. "It's good that we're working on the infrastructure, but St. Croix has to provide visitors with things to do while they're there."
Thomas suggested that St. Croix's Chamber of Commerce turn to developing sports and events industries to transform the island into a desired destination spot.
Turning to WICO's financial affairs, senators questioned Thomas on the amount of revenues collected from the company this year. WICO does not request any money from the central government, but rather contributes $1 million in lieu of taxes to the General Fund each year.
Thomas said WICO took in $3.4 million this year. After contributing the $1 million to the government, the company will decide what to do with its remaining funds.
"The members of the WICO board will have to gather together and decide what will happen with the rest of the money if we have a dividend, we will declare it to the PFA, our parent company, or we might turn around and reinvest it," Thomas said, adding that one of WICO's specific tasks is to find a "suitable birth for vessels." Thomas mentioned that the company is working on bringing more ship business to the Crown Bay port in St. Thomas; he hopes to send ships staying overnight to Crown Bay.
Thomas further mentioned the company's investment in a substantial piece of land within the Yacht Haven Marina on St. Thomas. "We have leased approximately seven acres of land west of the dock owned by Island Capital, owners of the old Yacht Haven facility. They have embarked on a $150 million transformation of the area to create the most active marine facility in the Caribbean — a world-class marina capable of handing the largest luxury yachts afloat today," Thomas said.
WICO's investment, according to Thomas, will help return the $100 million charter-boat industry to the territory, as well as take advantage of future road development made around the area.
"The new four-lane highway planned from Havensight all the way down to the Lucinda Millen Home on St. Thomas will clear out all traffic from around Mandela Circle and make the marina easily accessible to the public. Additionally, the highway will look like a beautiful boulevard and will make driving in the area so much better."
Pleased by WICO's presentation, senators were less happy with budget requests from the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation and the Virgin Islands Labor Management Committee.
Asking for $144,000, VILMC Executive Director Sylvia D. Sargeant-Perry said that severe budget cuts imposed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in the past few years has hampered her organization's ability to provide employee training for various government departments and agencies.
"We requested $142,000 last year, and the governor cut that down to $100,000. Then, the Legislature cut us down to $75,000, and that's all we received for 2005," Sargeant-Perry said, adding that Turnbull has recommended the same amount for VILMC for fiscal year 2006.
"If you want us to continue providing the service that we do, you have to give us the money. We've implemented a lot of cost-cutting measures, and we've saved as much as we can," she said. "After that, we just need the money to get our job done."
Sargeant-Perry explained to senators that she and members of her staff do not even turn on all the electricity in their facility on St. Thomas unless there is a visitor. "We've used both sides of the paper when we photocopy; we use e-mail to send out our correspondence instead of paying money on postage; and we've posted our advertisements on the community bulletin board instead of advertising in the newspaper. There's not much else we can do."
Sargeant-Perry added that money is also needed to pay staff members and to meet rent payments on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
While supporting Sargeant-Perry in her request for money, senators were less lenient with members from the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation. Citing inadequate sports facilities, deplorable housing conditions and an "archaic" system of accounting, committee members were even hesitant to consider the department's $5.2 million request.
"You haven't even submitted us all of your financial information," Sen. Usie Richards said, adding that the department had records and reports in piles and boxes in its facilities. "How do you expect us to give you the money you're asking for when you don't give us the information?"
Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson added his own concerns about the condition of the territory's ballparks, noting that the conditions and sanitation of the facilities on St. Croix were worsening.
HPR's Commissioner Ira Hobson said he had been asking senators to allocate more funding for his department for years, and nothing "positive" has been happening. "We went from receiving $8 million in funding in 2001 and have slowly been cut down to $5 million for the past couple of years." Hobson added that keeping up with all of the department's work is difficult with such little funding.
HPR representatives also said that some capital projects have been affected by the money shortage. "We've recently built our first recreational facility in St. Croix, but the lack of money has kept the vision of what we want to do with the place at a minimum," Hobson said. "I want to take it back to the past back into our culture's history, where people were weaving straw hats and sewing their own clothes." Hobson even said that he had moved
to put in a few sewing machines at the facility, but was unable to purchase them.
Sympathizing with Hobson, Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville promised the department that he would campaign for extra funds for youth programs and related facilities. "I have a similar dream as you, Mr. Hobson. But I also want to see the day when our children do not have to beg for money, when they can go to these places and be comfortable and happy."
Present at Thursday's meeting were Sens. Figueroa-Serville, Nelson, Richards, Craig W. Barshinger, Norman Jn Baptiste, Roosevelt C. David and Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg. Sen. Neville James was excused.
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