If there’s anything that the hurricanes of 2017 and the current COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated, it’s that the U.S. Virgin Islands needs to diversify its economy and become less dependent on tourism.
But how exactly do we do that?
That’s the question that UVI’s Center for Leadership and Learning, more commonly known UVI CELL, is posing to the public in a series of town hall meetings.
At the second virtual public meeting, held on Wednesday evening to discuss issues particular to St. John, residents brought up concerns often addressed in public meetings – preserving the environment, addressing the soon-to-expire lease for Caneel Bay Resort and providing job training and opportunities for small, local businesses.
A similar virtual meeting was held for St. Croix on Sept. 9, and one is scheduled for St. Thomas on Sept. 23. Individuals who have not been able to attend are urged to provide their responses to the questions posed at the town hall meetings through an online survey.
Suzanne Darrow-Magras, director of UVI CELL, said she is eager to arrange additional meetings for community groups before the public comment period closes on Sept. 30. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Government of the Virgin Islands has tasked UVI CELL with formulating two five-year plans: one for economic development (USVI Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy) and one for tourism (Tourism Master Plan).
The federal government requires these plans in order for the territory to qualify for funding from some federal agencies. The plans are designed to be used for initiatives to expand the economy and enhance tourism for the benefit of locals and visitors.
Wednesday’s discussion about St. John opened with a question to target the territory’s strengths in terms of economic development and tourism. That led to some long pauses, punctuated literally by the sound of crickets.
After some awkwardness, participants mentioned the natural beauty of St. John and attractions like swimming among marine life, cultural festivals, farm-to-table meals, yoga wellness, reliable ferry service between St. Thomas and St. John and islanders’ welcoming nature.
Harith Wickrema, a rental villa owner and an environmental activist, said the Virgin Islands has made strides in terms of outlawing toxic sunscreens and plastic bags and straws, but he said the government has not done enough to promote these green initiatives or enforce their regulations.
Participants seemed far more ready to respond to a question about areas that need improvement. They cited an unreliable power grid, overflowing waste bins, roads riddled with potholes and the lack of a sewage pump-out facility for boaters. Smoke from a recurring dump fire blowing over from Tortola was also mentioned.
Discussions veered back and forth between the negative and positive.
Responding to a question about opportunities, Linda Sorensen said many people have learned to work remotely since the pandemic. The islands could be promoted as a place to relocate for those who are no longer tied to urban centers.
Sharon Coldren, president of the Coral Bay Community Council, said the island’s resiliency has been increased as small investors have purchased land and built homes that then go onto the rental market. The increase in villa rooms has mitigated the effects on the economy caused by the closing of the Caneel Bay Resort and the conversion of the Westin Resort to timeshares.
However, several participants commented that local people are simply not able to afford to build homes on St. John. Pam Gaffin said, “To buy a home on St. John is at least $500,000. How can someone support a family without having to go to the States or sell family land?”
During the online chat, “Ehnah” stated a need for “more small businesses that support the community rather than tourists who only come for a time. We need a strong farming industry. We need to make sure our children are educated to excel in our islands.”
Gaffin, a bookkeeper who works closely with small businesses, also criticized the territory’s Economic Development Commission, which offers tax incentive programs to off-island developers. “EDC benefits are too generous and forever. It creates an unfair condition for local businesses.”
Participants spoke about the need to maintain the unspoiled beauty of St. John. “Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs – keep the development off the beaches and water,” said Stephen Hull.
Dee K. Christian echoed comments about St. John’s beauty and noted that each island has its own personality type. “Let’s preserve that and expand what the USVI has to offer.”
In response to a question about the top three priorities, various participants listed ecotourism training, vocational training, farming (including cannabis cultivation), renewable energy, solar power, composting, road repair, basic infrastructure and “physical land development controls that are stronger and protect the environment better, [including] comprehensive plans and laws and limiting large, out-of-scale development.”
Rick Barksdale, one of the developers of the proposed Summer’s End Marina, said his top three priorities for both economic development and tourism were, “First, government responsiveness to those following the rules; second, support for locals looking to develop their resources; and third, it’s time for our government to enforce rules and regulations and encourage those looking to make things better.”
Athena Swartley said her priorities included “placing cultural and natural resources at the forefront of economic development instead of as an afterthought.”
In the chat, Sonia Witherspoon said, “St. John sells itself. However, if we were to focus in our 1) regulation and enforcement that preserve the very beauty that brings tourism, 2) balance of resources and power – [with] regular data gathering, surveys and forums and 3) [make] efforts towards cultural preservation, diversity and inclusion, we might be able to find the sweet spot that leads to longevity in tourism.”