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Public Outlines Strengths, Weaknesses for Local Economic-Development Plan

Sept. 30, 2008 — In five years the territory could be on its way to becoming an exporter of goods and services and a hub of economic activity in the Caribbean, a major destination for eco-tourism and a place with an international reputation as a great place to do business — if a series of opportunities and strengths are exploited and weaknesses and threats are resolved.
That was the consensus of two dozen people who attended the first of three public hearings on economic development. Tuesday's session was held at the Henry E. Rohlsen International Airport. Sessions will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Victor's Hideout Conference Room on St. Thomas and the same time Thursday at the St. John Legislature Conference Room.
The hearings are sponsored by the V.I. Economic Development Authority and conducted by the Council for Information and Planning Alternatives of St. Thomas.
There have been economic-development plans for the territory before, according to Dehdan Miller, a director of CIPA. The goal of this project is not to redo those studies, but to develop a plan with specific, actionable items that can be implemented.
During Tuesday's hearing, the audience was asked to respond in writing to five questions. Those responses, which will make up the basis of the plan, were then tabulated and presented. But the audience almost couldn't wait for the process to be completed. As Miller and Jeffrey Euwema, managing partner of CIPA, tabulated the results, audience members almost bubbled over with suggestions, frustrations and feedback. Attendees mentioned lack of coordination between agencies, inadequate educational systems, inequitable tax incentives and unresponsive government.
The CIPA members asked the audience members for their vision of the territory in five and 10 years. They also asked them to outline the territory's strengths for economic development, weaknesses that might stand in the way of business locating or expanding in the territory, opportunities and threats to economic development.
Recurring themes both in the responses and the audience comments included:
— Strengths: climate, location, U.S. affiliation, quality of life and the availability of land on St. Croix; and
— Weaknesses: education — particularly workforce training, business formalities and lack of service, the high cost of living — particularly electrical costs, and an overly bureaucratic government.
The lack of coordination between various agencies and departments was also a major obstacle in the opinion of many attending the meeting. As one frustrated observer pointed out, there was no representative in attendance from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, a major player in locating and developing businesses.
Many of the perceived weaknesses were also viewed as opportunities, areas where the territory can improve. These included improving the customer-service ethos and educational systems. The comments also suggested aggressive marketing of the territory to both industry and tourism to attract green industries, alternative-energy development and eco-tourism.
Perceived threats to economic development include "an imminent energy crisis," as Miller called it, brought on by spiraling electrical rates, crime, lack of education both in life skills and vocational training, natural disasters and a "brain drain" in which promising young Virgin Islanders see no future here and move away.
The results from Tuesday's meeting will be combined with those on St. Thomas and St. John and a survey CIPA is conducting. A second round of hearings will be held in November to present the preliminary findings, and a plan should be completed by the end of December.
But completing the plan is just the beginning step, Miller said, and probably the easiest part. Creating a vibrant economy will require following through on concrete recommendations.
Percival Clouden, chief executive officer of EDA, said he was pleased with the turnout. While many of the comments are beyond the purview of the Economic Development Authority acting alone, they do point a way to the future, he said.
Further information about the planning process can be obtained by calling EDA at 714-1700.
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