Category: Economic Development & Agriculture

LAWMAKERS UPDATED ON THE STATUS OF THE AGRICULTURE INDUSTRY

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Economic Development & Agriculture, chaired by Sen. Alison DeGazon, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Wednesday, to receive testimony from the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture (VIDOA) on the status of agricultural development in the Territory.

“Agriculture is a major economic sector in the Caribbean. It continues to generate income for other islands, facilitate food security, supply nutrition, and sovereignty, contribute to physical and infrastructural development and reduce poverty and hunger,” said Sen. DeGazon.

Currently, the status of agriculture in the Virgin Islands is “underutilized” noted Commissioner Nominee Positive Nelson. “Though, agriculture is proven potential has precedence it remains untapped and stagnant.” Some of the goals of VIDOA are to increase food production and security inclusive of crops, Next generation of farmers, livestock and marine life, boosting employee morale, market distribution, restore water preservation and dissemination, and the restoration of indigenous plants and forestry.

Nevertheless, the challenges plaguing the Department are unpredictable weather conditions such as a drought or natural disasters, low compensation for current farmers, the steady decline of the economy and the lack of people who are interested in pursuing a career in agriculture. Presently, the average age of a farmer is sixty-two years old. Sen. Athneil “Bobby” Thomas inquired of VIDOA’s strategy to attract younger farmers. Commissioner Nominee Nelson stated that educating youngsters and exposing them to new opportunities is a step in the right direction.

In 2017, there were 253 active licensed farmers in the St. Croix District. However, by 2018, there was a reduction of registered farmers on St. Croix totaling 171 of which approximately 40 farmers with a community garden had access to free water; the remaining must purchase water.

There are 27 registered farmers on St. Thomas and five on St. John. We Grow Food Inc. (WGF) President Eldridge Thomas noted that since December of 2018, water distribution has been a significant issue on St. Thomas. Despite hosting an Agricultural Fair, water trucks owned by the government were inoperable forcing WGF to buy water. Sen. DeGazon stated that infrastructure needs to be in place to give all farmers access to clean water.

VIDOA has an estimated 1,776.09 acres of the land asset on St. Croix of which 1,228 acres were leased. On St. Thomas, there is 133 acres of the land asset, but only 118 acres was distributed. On St. John, VIDOA has two acres of the land asset, and none of it was leased. Annually, the collective profit from leased lands totals $22,000. The percentage of farmers on Government property who has minimum farming activities equates to 34% of the farmers on St. Croix and 30% on St. Thomas. As it relates to outstanding land rental fee payments, there is 65% delinquent accounts on St. Thomas and 28% delinquent accounts on St. Croix. VIDOA is funded through Federal Grant Programs estimated at $1.8 million, the General Fund estimated at $4.5 and the Agriculture Revolving Fund of which $37K generated in revenues for the first quarter of FY 2019.                                 ###

COMMITTEE MEMBERS CONSIDER BILL TO TRANSFER ANN E. ABRAMSON MARINE FACILITY TO THE WEST INDIAN COMPANY, LTD.

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St. Thomas – The Committee of the Economic Development and Agriculture, chaired by Sen. Neville James, held a meeting at the Capitol Building on Wednesday, to receive testimony on several measures including Bill No. 32-0016- an Act authorizing the Virgin Islands Port Authority (VIPA) to transfer the management and operations of the Ann E. Abramson Marine Facility on the island of St. Croix to the West Indian Company, Ltd. (WICO).

“Is it your opinion that VIPA is adequately managing and handling cruise ships at the Ann E. Abramson Marine Facility?” asked Sen. James. In response, David Mapp, Sr. Executive Director of VIPA said, “Cruise lines and VIPA’s facilities or management are not the issues. St. Croix needs to improve its shore excursion experience for their guests. This includes modern, air-conditioned buses for transporting cruise guests because that is provided by neighboring competition.”

Transferring the facility to WICO may not be conducive to the intent of the bill because of the lack of amenities offered to cruise ship passengers stated Clifford Graham, President/CEO of WICO. “One way to grow the excursion market on St. Croix is to incentivize the private sector for the development of additional excursions. Packages should include land and water tours in addition to several attractions.”

“If we are serious about increasing the number of excursions on St. Croix, we need to be serious about helping the private sector to develop and grow,” said Sen. Nereida Rivera O’Reilly, Sponsor of the bill. “There are business permits that are stalled which results in the continued lack of amenities.”

In 2015, cruise ship visitors on St. Croix totaled 159,353. Since then passengers declined to 117,138 in 2016, 32,634 in 2017 and to-date 27,665 in 2018; per statistical data provided by Senior Policy Analyst of the Bureau of Economic Development Donnie Dorsett.

Sen. Sammuel Sanes inquired if improvements can be made to the tourism product. Commissioner of the V.I. Department of Tourism Beverly Nicholson Doty stated that the critical matter remains the Virgin Islands product offering. “Cruise lines are centered around the availability and capacity of tours, shopping and dining experiences close to the port and the time required for Customs and Border Protection to clear the vessel,” added Commissioner Doty.

“The Virgin Islands needs a new tourism product because it is currently stale. On St. Thomas, the stores on Main Street are very similar. Local vendors sell unique cultural products. However, vendors are stationed at Vendors Plaza. We have to recognize the value of the Territory and what we have to offer,” said Sen. Positive Nelson.

Ultimately, lawmakers voted to hold in committee Bill No. 32-0016.

Similarly, the senators also considered and voted the following to be held in committee:

  • Bill No. 32-0096 – An Act amending Title 29, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 12 subchapter I, sections 703, 710, and 712 relating to the employment requirements of a resident under the Economic Development Program
  • Bill No. 32-0104 – An Act to conduct a Feasibility Study on the implementation of a Composting Program in the Virgin Islands

However, Lawmakers considered and approved the following:

  • Bill No. 32-0009 – An Act amending Title 29, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 12 as it relates to investment requirement for an Economic Development Authority Certificate

 

V.I. DEPARTMENT OF TOURISM AND OTHER AGENCIES SHARES POST-HURRICANES UPDATE

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St. Thomas- The Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture, chaired by Sen. Neville James, held a meeting on Friday, at the Capitol Building to receive testimony from officials from the U.S.V.I. Department of Tourism and the Virgin Islands Department of Agriculture (VIDOA) on the status post-Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.

Thus far, 4,420 people were accommodated with 1,385 units in hotels, villas and Airbnb on the St. Croix District stated Commissioner of the Department of Tourism Beverly Nicholson-Doty. Similarly, on the St. Thomas-St. John District 11,000 people were accommodated weekly with over 2,503 units available. Major airlines such as Spirit, Delta, and Jet Blue Airways will increase services to the Territory gradually in the next several months. Unfortunately, there is an anticipated 30% reduction of cruise arrivals to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Considering that there will be over 5,000 tourists flying into St. Croix per week for 2018, what was the number for 2017?” asked Sen. Brian Smith. Commissioner Doty stated that 6,000 visitors flew into St. Croix weekly last year. However, if that number was to increase there will be a challenge with accommodations because some hotels still do not have a definitive re-open date.

“The lack of hotel accommodations makes me wonder about the quality of available units,” said Sen. Tregenza Roach. “Does Tourism monitors customer satisfaction for Airbnb?” He asked. Commissioner Doty said, “One of the challenges post-hurricanes is that we do not know where are all the Airbnb locations. Therefore, we are unable to effectively monitor the service.”

Marketing strategies for the Department of Tourism include promoting volunteer projects for tourists, launching the “Still Nice” social media campaign, updating the website and hosting press trips in the upcoming months.  Some of the press trips are the Marine Industry, St. Croix Food & Wine, St. Thomas Carnival, Agriculture Fair, and the St. John Villas. Sen. Positive Nelson stated that Tourism needs to expand their marketing plan. “In addition to Agriculture Tourism, there should be Cannabis Tourism, Health Tourism, and Conference Tourism. The Department can capitalize on all aspects of tourism. However, they are not.”

“Can you expound on the relationship with the Department of Tourism and VIDOA?”  asked Sen. James. Commissioner Doty said, “We promote Agriculture Tourism by inviting media to various events, and introducing locally grown crops to tourists as it relates to their culinary experience.”

Separately, the post-hurricane update of VIDOA is as follows: The administrative building on St. Thomas sustained flooding and mold. The greenhouse was damaged, and there is limited road access to farms due to erosion. On St. John, the Coral Bay Office, greenhouse and adjacent buildings sustained damages. St. Croix administrative offices and two greenhouses were compromised. The expanded irrigation system in the Community Gardens and the LaReine Vegetable Market was adversely affected. The territory-wide destruction of the greenhouses and seedlings sales has negatively impacted revenues. VIDOA does not have disaster funds stated Carlos Robles, Commissioner of VIDOA.

“The Territory is in a unique situation because our suppliers in Florida and Puerto Rico also suffered hurricane-related damages,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet. He asked, “Do you know when will the greenhouses be re-built?” Commissioner Robles said, “This is a tightrope because FEMA will reduce the funds if a permanent structure for the greenhouse is established.”

Sen. Marvin Blyden asked, “Since VIDOA lost 90,000 gallons of water from one of the storage tanks on St. Croix, will the department relocate the tanks to avoid future damages in the future?” Commissioner Robles stated that finding an adequate location is a challenge.

Separately, the Virgin Islands Port Authority (VIPA) and the West Indian Company, Ltd. (WICO) shared an update. Damien Cartwright, Assistant Executive Director/Director of Engineering of VIPA, said, “There are $85 million in hurricane-related damages to port facilities. However, most ports were reopened shortly after both storms to enable emergency personnel and supplies to arrive timely in the Territory.” Post-hurricanes repairing/rebuilding the airports and seaports are a priority. Lamartec, Inc. was selected by VIPA to be the Construction Manager at Risk for hurricane restoration projects throughout the Territory.

Clifford Graham, President and CEO of WICO stated that post-hurricanes there were utility poles, trees, sediments and sunken boats deposited in the inner berth. VIPA applied for an emergency dredging permit, and when granted the work began in October 2017.  A total of 1,100 cubic yards of debris and sediments were removed from the inner berth. The dredging enabled WICO to host three cruise ships in November 2017. Hurricane damages sustained to WICO facilities included holes in the roofs, missing windows and doors, missing parts of the perimeter fencing and broken light poles.

Senators present are Neville James, Positive Nelson, Marvin Blyden, Tregenza Roach, Dwayne DeGraff, Janette Millin Young and Brian Smith.                                                   `

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SENATE PRESIDENT ANNOUNCES POSTPONEMENT OF MEETINGS DUE TO IRMA

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ST. THOMAS – Senate President Myron D. Jackson announces that legislative meetings scheduled for the week of September 4 to 8 are postponed, due to the impending arrival of Hurricane Irma. The public will be informed of new dates. A final determination regarding the Legislative Session scheduled for September 8 will be made once the storm passes and its impacts are determined, he said.

Regarding the operations of the Legislature on all three islands, legislative employees are expected to report to work for 8 a.m. on Tuesday to secure their offices and, upon completion, will be allowed to leave at noon to continue their hurricane preparations at home. Casual wear is encouraged.

Based on reports from the National Hurricane Center and VITEMA, President Jackson said the Virgin Islands will likely be impacted by wind, rain, and ocean surge, particularly in the northern areas.

“As those reports are received I shall inform the public, all senators and our staff as to the operations of the Legislature,” he said. “All persons should therefore carefully monitor the media, including LEGIT TV – which can be accessed on Channel 5 throughout the territory, for announcements which may inform as to the operational status of the Legislature during the affected period.”

President Jackson said that the Legislature shall operate during this period only as weather conditions permit.

“Should the weather dictate the cessation of our operation for safety and health concerns, those decisions shall be made promptly and specific announcements shall be made,” he said. “I offer a prayer that all persons in the Virgin Islands, the Leeward and Windward Islands, and elsewhere be spared from Hurricane Irma. Please look to protect your families, friends, and properties be safe.”

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BILLS TO IMPROVE ECONOMY IN U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS MOVES FORWARD

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St. Thomas – The Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture, chaired by Sen. Neville James, held a meeting at the Capitol Building on Monday, and voted to approve amendments to Bill No. 32-0136 as it relates to the Hotel Development Act, and Bill No. 32-0137 as it pertains to the Tax Incremental Financing Act.

The intent of the amendments of the bills, seeks to harmonize the Hotel Development Act and the Tax Incremental Financing Act by allowing both statues to collaborate for the development of hotels and infrastructures in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“The Legislature is aware of the need of the Territory to make a commitment on all economic levels. For those who are not aware of our current financial status, in the past $9 million was appropriated for the General Fund. Those days may be long gone,” said Sen. James. “Recently, the governor submitted a budget that is significantly decreased. These two measures allow for the Virgin Islands to generate monies that can lead to economic and job growth.”

Sen. Kurt Vialet, Sponsor of both bills stated that the amendments to the existing bills are crucial to building the economy. “These amendments are designed to lure investors to the Territory and build new hotels on St. Thomas and St. Croix. At this point, St. Croix is in dire need of the development of a major hotel and it is also necessary to re-brand our tourism product on St. Thomas,” said Sen. Vialet.

“What are the benefits of these measures?” asked Sen. Sammuel Sanes. George Dudley, partner in the law firm Dudley, Topper and Feuerzeig, LLP and counsel to the Water Island Development Co., LLC said, “These amendments take on an even greater significance with the recent developments regarding the credit worthiness of the Territory by national credit rating agencies. It will unlock the key to allow the government re-emerge into the bond market.”

One of the revenue generating projects that will be positively impacted by the bills is the development of Water Island. “The Water Island Development Co., LLC will develop a hotel, a marina, veterans and mixed income housing, roads, underground utilities, a waste water treatment plant and other infrastructure on Water Island,” said Dudley.

“You stated that the cost of this development is $430 million and that it will be funded by private entities and revenue bonds. However, you mentioned without these amendments the revenue bond financing for the development is needed to start the development of Water Island,” said Sen. Tregenza Roach, “This is contrary to my assumption that all of the financing is already in place.”

In response, Dudley stated that the monies from private capital are there. However, the revenue bond financing is needed to develop roads and related infrastructures. “Revenues that are generated from both aspects are needed to bring the project forward,” said Dudley.

“What is the guarantee that jobs that are created from this project, will go to locals?” inquired Sen. Nereida O’Reilly. Dudley said, “Construction will be done using local labor and contractors. I am committed to ensuring this project will have a big impact towards local employment.”

In a line of questioning, Sen. Brian Smith inquired about the proposed number of local employees who will be hired, estimated acreage of the hotel and marina development and the time line of the start of this project. In response, Dudley said, “Hundreds of local people will be employed. There will be hundreds of acreages needed to build the development. Lastly, once the bills are passed, the project will begin 90 days after all permits are approved.”

Separately, Sen. James asked, “Can you explain how the tax increment financing will benefit the Virgin Islands?” In response, Dudley said, “There will be incremental increases in the homes that will be built, marina and hotel occupancies. The tax increase will be used to support the bonds. It is important to know that this revenue bond structure does not expose the Territory to liabilities or risks associated by the developer with the bonds.”

Ultimately, lawmakers unanimously voted favorably for both measures. All bills approved will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

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SENATOR JAMES COMMITTEE GETS UPDATES FROM DOT, DOA AND EDA

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On Tuesday, the Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture, chaired by Senator Neville James, held a public hearing in the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room, St. Croix.

The Committee received updates from Beverly Nicholson Doty, Commissioner, Department of Tourism (DOT); Carlos Robles, Commissioner, Department of Agriculture (DOA); and Wayne Biggs, Acting CEO, Economic Development Authority (EDA).

Chairman James asked committee members and other Senators to focus their questions on the operations of these agencies. In doing so, he said the committee would be able to get a better understanding as to how the Senate could work with them in formulating a mandate so as to raise the possibility in generating revenues and/or extending funding.

In her testimony, the DOT Commissioner highlighted some of their public relations efforts for fiscal year 2016. According to Doty, in late December 2016, they pitched a story about the Department’s Centennial promotion and the ripple effect of that story resulted in more than 250 additional print and broadcast placements; that, she added, resulted in more than 4 billion impressions from this coverage.

The Commissioner said Centennial promotion in 2017 resulted in 1,513 total packages to date with a total of 6,355 room nights and almost $4 million in economic impact. She told the committee that cruise traffic has not registered the same growth as overnight visitors. According to her, the Virgin Islands had a significant reduction in calls in 2016 and this trend is projected unfortunately to continue through 2018.

In regards to DOT advertising initiatives, the Commissioner pointed out that between January and September 2017, $3 million will be invested in advertising. As for their sales, they have participated in 30 trade shows; conducted 85 training and educational seminars and completed 3,000 sales calls.

The DOA Commissioner, Robles said more that 97-percent of our foods are imported from around the world. The administration’s goal he added is to find ways to rebuild the agriculture industry in the territory and to create marketing linkage between the growers, buyers and consumers.

They have already started an initiative with our public schools, said Robles. In November 2016, approximately 3,345 lbs of pumpkins were supplied to the School Food Authority during Thanksgiving week. Furthermore, they have launched the “Melonmania” campaign which supplied 8,831 lbs of melons to the DOE and distributed to every public school throughout the territory.

EDA CEO Biggs will be using a variety of media to inform both local community and external potential investors about their programs and services. Biggs informed committee members that the Economic Development Bank (EDB) is administrating the State Small Business Credit Initiative Program, which provides loan guarantees for small businesses.

According to him, the Territory receives an SSBCI allotment of $13.2 million from the U.S. Department of Treasury; a total of $9.6 million has been expanded or committed. Additionally, there are several new loan requests totaling approximately $1.755 million in the pipeline.

In regards to the EDC program, Biggs said fifteen (15) applications have been presented to the Governing Board for consideration since October 2016, of which thirteen (13) were approved with a favorable recommendation to be submitted to the Governor. Eight (8) applications have been approved by the governor thus far this fiscal year and an additional two (2) applications are pending his decision.

He added that fourteen (14) certificates of benefits have been drafted for this fiscal year and of these, based upon the comments made, the Territory will realize approximately $64.5 million in capital investment, new and continued employment at a minimum of 639 full-time employees, and $1.2 million in charitable contributions annually.

On a positive note, CEO Biggs said the overall financial health of the Authority continues to improve in regards to collections compared to the same period last year. He pointed out that EDB collections are up by 14-percent; EDC annual compliance fee collections are up by 12-percent; and the Economic Development Park Cooperation (EDPC) rent collections are up by 8-percent.

Committee members at Tuesday’s hearing were Chairman, Senator Neville James, Brian Smith, Sammuel Sanes, Dwayne Degraff, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, Kurt Vialet, Marvin Blyden, Positive Nelson, and Tregenza Roach. Non-Committee members were Senators Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, and Novelle Francis, Jr.

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