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.