Account Ability – Thinking Big: Opportunities

This article is one in a series about how to strengthen the V.I. government’s finances without raising tax rates. Each deals with a specific proposal.

Many of our suggestions, so far, have been precise but small-scale proposals: such as raising a few million dollars with a new wire transfer fee and saving a few million by discharging the third party fiduciary to the V.I. Department of Education. These are presumably useful but, by themselves, insufficient tools.

For a change of pace, here is a bolder, broader suggestion: the islands should mount a series of organized, brainstorming sessions on attracting middle-sized and large new activities to the USVI, preferably funded by off-island entities. The new activities could bring capital investment and new, permanent jobs; each would enhance the islands’ economy, generally, and in turn generate more tax revenues for the all-but-empty treasury.

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That thought process was stimulated by what some rural areas in the U.S. south have done in this regard, and what some non-U.S. islands are doing today, though admittedly not always honorably. (For example, we do not suggest the USVI replicate the off-shore tax evasion programs, visible in the BVI, and elsewhere.)

On the mainland many southern rural areas are more prosperous, even much more prosperous, than they otherwise would be because the Department of Defense has placed military bases in those communities. Those installations ensure a continual and substantial flow of outside money. While Delegate Stacey Plaskett, the islands’ voice in Washington, D.C., does not have the clout of the politicians who secured the aforementioned bases for their home districts and states – for example, the late Congressman Carl Vinson of Georgia, longtime chair of the House Armed Services Committee – the islands do have many special qualities that might appeal to off-island organizations, including the Department of Defense.

By the way, this is not to suggest that there is no such thinking occurring now. The governor’s recent suggestion that Guantanamo’s prison facility could be moved to USVI is a commendable example. Interestingly, some leaders prefer to imprison suspected terrorists in Gitmo because it, unlike the USVI, is outside the reach of the federal court system. We disagree. Relocating the facility to the USVI would advance the rule of law, would improve America’s reputation in the global community, and boost the USVI economy.

Please note: good brainstorming is a purely creative activity and benefits from an open mind. Both quality and quantity are helpful. One wants as many ideas as possible, some of which will collide to spark still more. If 30 suggestions produce even one viable new idea you have made progress. Critical review and an “it won’t work” analysis is a later step, to winnow the field and identify the strongest possibilities.

In that spirit what follows is a list of ideas, some outlandish to be sure, to prime the pump and get readers’ creative juices flowing.

The List. Each of the following possibility is based on leveraging some special quality of the USVI.

Let’s start with making lemonade out of lemons idea. Let’s think about the islands’ remoteness from the mainland as a selling point. Were there to be a nuclear war, there would be a great danger that our foes would obliterate our great cities and certainly the Pentagon. Most likely the enemy would ignore the USVI.

No. 1. Could it be useful for the Department of Defense to have a back-up (the popular word today is “redundant”) facility deep underground in the USVI, with a command center and a communications system all ready to go in case the Pentagon were destroyed? Remember on 9/11 the Pentagon suffered a direct hit from an airliner, killing everyone on board plus another 125 in the building. If not for the Pentagon then maybe for the U.S. Southern Command located in Tampa.

No. 2. Still thinking of the Department of Defense, might not the USVI beaches be useful in landing practices for the Navy and the Marines? How about relocating the training center for deep-sea divers here? (It’s currently in Panama City, Fla.)

No. 3. The relative remoteness of the islands suggests that some sensitive high-security, continuing activity might be located in the USVI, perhaps on one of the smaller islands. This could be akin to the practice of locating some facilities deep in the deserts of the western states.

No. 4. The USVI is one of several U.S. territories in the tropics, and it could offer itself as a good place to study tropical diseases (specifically as a regional arm, or annex, of the Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control). The remoteness of the islands, especially one of its smaller ones, also offers a kind of natural quarantine quality, which could be attractive.

No. 5. The V.I. government should take advantage of the Trump administration’s interest in enforcement to encourage it to restore the full-time staffing of a border patrol station in the islands. Currently the BP brings people over from Puerto Rico when it needs to do something. In the past it had a permanent establishment in USVI.

No. 6. Maybe the islands could issue their own stamps and commemorative coins, with the coins accepted as legal tender in the USVI. (This would require congressional approval.) The territory would need to strike a favorable deal with a stamp and/or coin company to distribute the products, primarily to collectors. The V.I. government would want to check with some Pacific island nations, such as the Republic of the Marshall Islands, for their experience with this.

No. 7. This is perhaps the most fanciful idea, and only partially shaped at that―try to create an environment which will attract some of the rich and the restless to one or more of the islands. Is there a way to create an event that will call on the fashionable – or even better, the new class of IT innovators – to the islands? The first-ever international conference on how the IT industry can improve life in the tropics? A film festival like Cannes, Sundance or Telluride, but focusing on films from the Antilles? A series of events tied to the use and dangers of the social media? Schedule it in the summer, when San Francisco is shrouded in fog.

The Process. We suggest this be a volunteer, non-governmental activity; no government funds would be spent on this initiative.

In order to create a better and longer list of useful ideas than shown here, there should be a process, perhaps organized by the University of the Virgin Islands, to stimulate and sort through these ideas.

This could be a series of brainstorming sessions, in which a small cross section of residents would assemble (with there being some changes in personnel at each session).

The participants for each session ought to represent a diverse collection of talents, backgrounds, ages, industries and so one. In addition to entrepreneurs and eggheads, artists and specialists, there ought to be someone from the governor’s office, the delegate’s office, the Senate, and, if I may, the Source. If someone from the BVI could participate, so much the better.

For such sessions expertise is helpful, but it should not be at the cost of achieving an eclectic mix, and attracting people with open minds, creativity and a generous spirit. Preferably these are people who do not already interact. The university could provide a writer to summarize each conversation, to help stimulate the next gathering. These summaries ought to be published online, so everyone can participate in some fashion. It’s probably best that ideas and comments be recorded without names attached, so participants may speak candidly.

A skilled facilitator would lightly preside and offer continuity across the sessions. Negative thinking would be discouraged. Participants would need to agree to the publication of the meeting summaries.

Proposal. That a series of sessions, such as described above, be organized, and moved from island to island. The university or some other private sector entity would be in charge, but would not own the ideas generated during the sessions.

Predicted Results. This is a crap shoot; perhaps one great or one little idea will emerge; perhaps more or nothing at all; perhaps a bunch of interesting people will simply get to know each other; regardless, it’s worth a try.

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