ST THOMAS, USVI -- The US Virgin Islands is reported to be behind schedule in the planning of the celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the USVI as a territory of the United States.
The “Centennial Celebrations,” slated to take place over the 17-month period from August 2016 to December 2017, commemorates the March 31, 1917, transfer (by purchase for the sum of $25 million dollars in gold -- more than three times the purchase price of Alaska) of the then-Danish West Indies, namely St Croix, St John, and St Thomas, to the United States during the height of World War I.
The primary impetus for the purchase was to pre-empt Germany's interest in acquiring the islands from Denmark, an occurrence that would have given Germany a foothold in the Western Hemisphere and a strategic military advantage vis a vis the Panama Canal. The transfer treaty was signed in August 1916, with the actual transfer ceremony taking place in March 1917.
Former senator Wayne James
“The Centennial Celebration is our Olympics, our World Cup. It is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase ourselves to the US, Denmark, the Caribbean, and the rest of the world,” said Wayne James, former senator of the US Virgin Islands and sponsor of the 2010 legislation that enables the Centennial Celebrations.
“It would be colossally unwise for us not to seize this opportunity. Time and history have placed an economic golden egg into the palms of our hands; and if we do this right, we will reap the economic, political, social, and cultural benefits that are likely to derive from a well-planned, 17-month-long celebration. The 100th birthday celebration is always the big one,” James added.
“During the celebratory period, every man, woman, and child in the United States and Denmark should be made aware of the US Virgin Islands and its contributions to both countries. Presently – unfortunately -- despite the fact that we have been American for almost 100 years and have fought and died in America's wars, have enhanced America's cultural and artistic heritages, and have contributed immensely to the political history and evolution of the United States, the average American does not know that the Virgin Islands is a part of the United States and that Virgin Islanders are American citizens. Many educated Americans could not pinpoint the US Virgin Islands on a map if their lives depended on it. Likewise, despite the fact that we contributed enormously to the Danish economy for almost 300 years during the colonial era from 1671-1917, the average 21st-century Dane can only vaguely, even if nostalgically, recall their former 'sugar islands in the tropics.' The Centennial Celebrations affords the Virgin Islands a unique opportunity to change all of that through awareness and education, while simultaneously improving the islands' economy the real, sustainable way: from the ground up, in a mom-and-pop, grassroots way,” James explained.
And the US Virgin Islands could do with an economic windfall right about now. Besides being adversely impacted by the world-wide recession since 2008, in February 2012, petroleum refinery HOVENSA, the territory's largest private employer and one of the world's largest oil refineries, closed its gates after it and its affiliated forerunners had been refining oil on St Croix for almost a half-century.
HOVENSA, together with its contractors, employed 2,200 people on St Croix (1,200 directly by the refinery and 1,000 by its contractors); and it was estimated by the territory's Bureau of Economic Research that the Virgin Islands would realize a shortfall in economic output in 2013 of $580 million dollars as a result of the refinery's closure, a figure that translates to an overall decline in tax revenue of $140 million dollars for 2013 ($60 million directly attributable to the refinery through corporate and employee taxes, for example, and another $80 million attributed to the spending and other economic activity of those employees throughout the territory).
While tourism remains strong on St Thomas, and St Croix's rum industry remains exceedingly viable, it is clear that the territory is in the throes of economic doldrums. It is also clear that it is creative approaches to tourism that will revive the islands' struggling economy in the immediate and long-term future. And it is the Centennial Celebrations, according to James, that will provide the necessary platform for the US Virgin Islands to re-brand and re-market itself to the US, Denmark, Caribbean neighbours, and the rest of the world.
But despite the obvious potential for the Centennial Celebrations to serve as a catalyst to economic revival; and despite the legal obligation for the US Virgin Islands to begin planning the 2016-17 celebrations from as early as 2013, little has been done on the territorial level to move forward with preparations for the celebrations. In February 2013, the Danes, under the auspices of the Flensborg Maritime Museum and the Museum Sønderjylland Kulturhistorie-Aabenraa, held a workshop to begin planning for the 2017 Centennial Celebrations; and in May 2013, the US Virgin Islands delegate to congress introduced a resolution to have the Centennial recognized on the Federal level. And it is likely that the US Department of Interior would be called upon to interface territorial and national efforts.
“But the Centennial Celebrations is our birthday party,” James said. “So we have to take the lead, plan the party, pay for the party, and then invite our guests. That's the way it is done. If our guests bring a gift, fine. If not, the party must go on. Neither the federal government nor the Danish government is going to do this for us. They might help a little. And they will show up if invited. But the onus of the Centennial Celebrations is on the people of the United States Virgin Islands,” James said.
“Act No. 7157, as amended, is Virgin Islands law; and it must be complied with,” James continues. “The law, as it stands after having been amended in part and vetoed in part, requires that there be 'established within the Office of the Commissioner of Tourism a special temporary commission known as the Centennial Commission of the Virgin Islands' which was supposed to have submitted a detailed budget to the Virgin Islands Legislature for funding consideration by January 28, 2013. That mandate has not been met. No Commission has been formed, and, consequently, no detailed budget has been submitted to the legislature, let alone approved for funding. In addition, the Centennial Commission is charged with submitting to the governor by June 30, 2014 a comprehensive report incorporating its specific recommendations for the Centennial Celebrations. To date, there has been no invitation for community input on the Centennial Celebrations. So in order to be back on track with the timeline as established by Act No. 7157, as amended, the Centennial Commission would have to be formed and begin acting decisively immediately.”
The quadricentennial celebration of Jamestown, Virginia, is perhaps the gold standard by which other US state and city anniversary celebrations are measured. In 2007, the town of Jamestown, celebrating its 400th anniversary as the first permanent English settlement in North America, generated $1.2 billion in sales; created 20,621 jobs; and accounted for $22 million in state and $6.4 million in local taxes. The celebration, which required ten years of planning and extended over a period of 18 months, promoted Virginia's tourism industry and increased exposure to Virginia as a tourist destination through editorial coverage that generated over 12 billion media impressions, according to the official report on the commemoration.
The key characteristics of successful anniversary celebrations in the United States and around the world are: advanced planning; public-private partnerships; proper financing; and long celebratory periods so that the economic benefits can be spread and realized over a significant period of time.
Act No. 7157, as amended, also provides for the establishment of a Virgin Islands-based clearing house within the Centennial Commission, which would maintain an up-to-date schedule of the celebratory events and initiatives of the federal government, the government of Denmark, the various states of the United States, and the Caribbean island-nations.
“Events have to be carefully scheduled and coordinated so as to avoid overlap and duplication,” James said.
“Extending over a period of 17 months, the Centennial Celebrations could account for unprecedented visits to the Virgin Islands,” James added. “This is our hundred-year anniversary, and it would behoove us to invite -- significantly in advance -- the White House, the Danish monarch and the Danish Parliament; the governors and lieutenant governors of the fifty states; the US Senate and House of Representatives; state legislators; delegations from the neighboring Caribbean islands, etc. All of those entities travel with staff and media. All of those people will need hotel accommodations, ground transportation, and meals in restaurants, for example. They will shop in local boutiques and have cocktails in local bars. In addition, Virgin Islanders who live abroad will return home for the celebrations -- especially since the celebrations will coincide with two Christmas seasons and several carnivals of the three islands. And Danes with colonial ties will revisit the islands. The Virgin Islands should be the topic of discussion in the US, Denmark, and the Caribbean region so much so that the heightened awareness will translate into business and leisure investments in the territory for generations to come.
“I have long been a proponent of the tourism industry, and the Virgin Islands Department of Tourism is one of the few revenue-generating departments of the VI government. So it only makes sense, that in these economic times, we invest in a tried and tested industry that has consistently contributed to our bread and butter since the late 1940s,” James said. “And unlike rum export revenues, or corporate tax revenues from an oil refinery, which go directly into the government's coffers, thereafter to trickle down into the community, tourism dollars hit the ground spending, working their way up from the cash registers of small businesses, onto the dinner tables of the average resident, then, finally into the government's coffers as tax revenue. Each day, tourists disembark airplanes and cruise ships and spend money in local stores, bars and restaurants, taxis, hotels, night clubs, car rental agencies, etc. The tourism dollar is a dollar that the average working man can touch, see, and spend long before it reaches the government. And the tourism dollar is new money coming into the territory each day. The Centennial Celebrations will give us a rare opportunity, while the entire world is looking at us, to redefine and distinguish our tourism product from that of the region.
“Yes, it would be wonderful for another company to come to the islands and employ thousands of people overnight. But while we wait for those boon days to return, we need to go for what we know and can do for ourselves today. And that is tourism. And the Centennial Celebration will allow us to do tourism like we have never done it before,” James concluded.