ST CROIX, USVI -- Governor John de Jongh discussed his vision and strategic priorities for economic development and growth on St Croix and the US Virgin Islands at the St Croix Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 annual membership breakfast meeting on Thursday.
Speaking to St Croix’s private sector leaders, the governor noted that more local jobs were created in 2012 on St Croix than in other parts of the Territory, to include 260 new positions. He said the business community’s resilience, and a strong foundation of entrepreneurship, would see the island through the challenges brought on by the closure of the HOVENSA oil refinery and changing economic dynamics.
“Our economic future depends on our ability to support a diversified economy,” the governor said.
An increase in Gross Receipts Taxes, as well as borrowing measures, bridged the gap last year with the government’s capital and operating expenses and “helped us to survive,” de Jongh said, adding, “We have a strong foundation for a bright and prosperous future.”
St Croix Chamber of Commerce president Mark Eckard provided an overview of the Chamber’s vision and mission for 2013. He said the business community was “excited” about the development of a sports complex, about advances in community policing, and regarding the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network’s broadband build-out. “2013 will be a year of further growth,” he said.
The governor commended the St Croix business community for its willingness “to get engaged” in restructuring the island’s economy in the aftermath of the HOVENSA closure, and he applauded their efforts to run their businesses in a difficult economic climate.
In describing the Territory’s economic challenges, de Jongh noted that revenues are down 13 percent, primarily due to declining corporate income taxes, adding that other revenue categories have remained steady.
“At the same time, expenditures were reduced by more than 10 percent across the government,” de Jongh said.
As a result of reduced spending levels, he noted, “We ensured that schools remained open, healthcare services were available to those in need, road construction work continued on schedule, police and public safety institutions had the funding they needed to protect citizens, and recreational activities were still available to the community.”
The chief executive described some of the major structural challenges facing the government, from pension system liability, to insurance and health care costs. He discussed expanding air lift and cruise ship calls to St Croix, and efforts to promote and grow the island’s and Territory’s tourism sectors.
He also spoke about “the debilitating effects that the cost of electricity is having on our small businesses and our economy” and assured business owners that the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority is on track to convert to a flexible generating capacity in 18 months, using the lowest-cost available fuels.
De Jongh also discussed other projects targeted to bring down the Territory’s energy costs and reduce waste, including solar panel installations at the Territory’s public schools.
During Thursday’s event, the governor recognized the participants present from St Croix’s Junior Achievement group and commended the Chamber and others throughout the community for supporting an initiative that instills “a notion of entrepreneurship in the Territory’s youth.”
He also noted that on St Croix, charitable giving remains high, “an indication of personal pride and commitment to the community.”