ST. CROIX–The Committee on Economic Development, Regulations, and Agriculture chaired by Senator Allison L. DeGazon met on Thursday in the Virgin Islands Cardiac Center to receive status reports from the West Indian Company, Ltd (WICO) and the Department of Tourism (DOT).
Senator DeGazon in her opening statement indicated that she wants to ensure the Committee and the community of the importance of receiving periodic updates from the various government departments which come under their purview and to determine the status and what type of assistance may be needed.
She added that these two entities before the Committee today, play a major role in steering the economic growth of the Territory. According to the Chairwoman, transparency is the word that will rule today. She pointed out that WICO has been known to be a very closed entity and we need to break that perception. She asked the questions: what we are doing to ensure more access to flights and what are we doing to ensure we have a well-attended and successful festival?
In his testimony, Anthony Ottley, Interim President, West Indian Company (WICO) addressed the committee’s three interests by giving an overview of its three revenue streams. He said the first source of income derived from leases of their warehouses, commercial buildings, and other properties.
He pointed out that WICO’s assets also include over seven acres of undeveloped land in Estate Liverpool and Estate Thomas; the Estate Catherineberg residence overlooking downtown Charlotte Amalie and its grounds; upland and submerged land leased to Yacht Haven Grande; and the West Indian Dock.
WICO’s second revenue source, he added, is from the managerial fee from overseeing operations of Havensight Mall’s retail stores, offices, bars and restaurants, and warehouses. According to him, since the acquisition of the Employee’s Retirement System in 1993, the Mall itself continues to be one of the Retirement System’s best performing assets.
WICO’s third and largest revenue source, said Ottley, is the West Indian Company Dock. Accordingly, the berth area has a length of 3,300 feet, comprising of three distinct sections—the main section, the finger section, and the overhang section.
He told the Committee that over the past 20 years, the WICO Dock has undergone extensive lengthening and strengthening. Furthermore, these upgrades were in direct response to the increase in the size of ships as they came online over the past two decades.
One of their biggest challenges today, said Ottley, is accommodating the larger ships since they are unable to further extend the dock. Additionally, lengthening is not possible as it would exceed the 3,300 feet footprint and breach the main channel boundary.
According to WICO’s Interim President, additional berths in the Territory will maximize their ability to receive at least two more mega ships, restore their status in the cruise tourism industry and contribute desperately needed funds to the Virgin Islands economy. In addition, increasing port capacity will allow them to increase their revenue and help address their outstanding payment in lieu of taxes to the government.
Meanwhile, in her testimony to the Committee, Elizabeth Hansen Watley, Assistant Commissioner, DOT said, their marketing strategy is founded on three pillars—accommodation, airlift, and cruise.
In respect to accommodation, she pointed out that DOT is working with their private sector on the reopening of hotels and resorts territory wide. She said the Ritz-Carlton in St. Thomas reopens in November; the Frenchman’s Reef-Marriott Resort and Spa; Marriott’s Autograph Collection; Noni Beach-a St. Thomas Resort, as well as Renaissance Carambola and Divi Carina Bay in 2020.
According to Watley, this winter season air capacity to St. Croix is ahead of 2017 pre-storm levels, while seat capacity to St. Thomas is projected to approach 90 percent of the pre-storm levels. She pointed out that JetBlue Airways from Boston is currently serving St. Thomas with weekly nonstop Saturday flights through February 9, 2020 and will operate a daily nonstop service between February 13 and April 28, 2020.
As for American Airlines, she said it will serve the Miami-St. Croix market with three daily flights for the Thanksgiving holiday and has extended Charlotte-St. Croix flights from Saturday only to daily during the peak Christmas period. The Airlines also has announced weekly year-round Saturday service to St. Thomas from Dallas-Fort Worth, and seasonal Saturday service from Chicago, beginning December 21, 2019. The carrier will also add a third daily flight between Miami and St. Thomas from December 18, 2019.
Eastern Caribbean itineraries have been negatively impacted, said Assistant Comm. Watley by the reduction of cruise calls. According to her, they remain committed to strengthening their relationship with the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) and will promote the territory’s advantages with their strong presence at FCCA’s annual Conference and Trade Show in San Juan, Puerto Rico next week.
The new Division of Festivals, she told the Committee, will plan and implement several activities, ranging from organizing and revitalizing events, to rolling out an aggressive marketing campaign. She added that the passage of Act 8153, DOT continues to work the legislature and the office of management and Budget to secure full funding to staff the Division of Festival and the VI Cultural Heritage Institute.
According to Watley, they have laid the groundwork for the planning and promotion of the upcoming Crucian Christmas Festival. The unveiling of the official festival poster and other collateral materials, including a festival logo, and launching of their promotional plans, took place at a tourism ambassadors’ reception in South Florida at Miami Carnival, where they encouraged buy-in and generated excitement for the event.
The Assistant Commissioner said, “in spite of our restricted budget, DOT will continue to dynamically market our destination as we aim to do more with fewer resources.”
Committee members at Thursday’s hearing were: Chairwoman, Senator Allison L. DeGazon, Athneil “Bobby” Thomas, Alicia V. Barnes, Oakland Benta, Marvin A. Blyden, Myron D. Jackson, Kurt A. Vialet, and Novelle E. Francis.