The last decade has not been kind to the U.S. Virgin Islands. In many respects, it has been a period of economic, social, and political decline. Many of the wounds of this period were self-inflicted. "Unkind" does not describe the current situation.
The events of recent months have produced a situation that can only be described as cruel. A series of events, mostly related to the terrorist attacks on the mainland, have come as relentless body blows to the territory's economy and its sense of hope for the future. It sometimes seems as if the only bad thing that has not occurred is a major hurricane.
Not one of these events was within the control of Virgin Islanders; nor are immediate solutions. Their cumulative impact has been to decimate an already struggling economy. The Virgin Islands needs help — primarily, but not exclusively, financial assistance — to get through the next year. That help can come from only one source, the federal government. Without it, there will be great hardship, with the potential for enormous strain on a social fabric that already is badly frayed.
While the Virgin Islands often has been guilty of crying wolf, this time the wolf is, in fact, at the door.
Toward what purposes should an assistance package be applied? Here is a small package of ideas.
First, it is useful to make an assumption with respect to the upcoming tourist season. The safest assumption is that it is going to be a near total loss. If one accepts this assumption — and there is little evidence to contradict it — the territory, particularly the tourist sector, should use this period to do three things that have been largely neglected in recent years, and in some instances for many years.
Through a mix of grants and low- or no-interest loans, the federal government should infuse substantial funds to keep displaced workers and affected businesses afloat. These dollars should create work, but not "make work." Three areas should be targeted, and measurable achievements should be assigned to each, the overall objective being a "new" Virgin Islands when the next tourist season arrives:
– Low-interest and no-interest loans with easy repayment terms to improve communities and upgrade properties that have not been effectively maintained in recent years, investments that represent a vote of confidence in the future. Savan and Frederiksted would be logical candidates as seriously distressed communities in which a range of measurable improvements could be made in the coming year.
– A large scale, systematic and permanent effort to improve tourism management and customer service, the Achilles heel of the Virgin Islands economy and a key source of its declining reputation. The University of the Virgin Islands would be a logical institutional home for this undertaking, and funds should be allocated for stipends for displaced workers and managers to gain a true understanding of customer service. Make the year of no tourists the year of learning and change.
– Significant funding for major beautification efforts on all three islands, a response to the environmental deterioration of recent years and also a vote of confidence in the future.
To the extent possible, funds for these efforts should flow through recognized entities, including not-for-profit agencies, or should be administered directly by a federal agency. They should not be allowed to disappear into the bottomless pit of the Virgin Islands government coffers.
In all instances, achievements should be measured. A year or two from now, the territory should be even more beautiful than it is now, visitors should report good consumer experiences, and Virgin Islanders should be proud of having weathered the storm with minimal damage and a set of great accomplishments.
It is time for both the federal government and local business and civic leaders to step up to the challenge, the feds with money and the private sector with planning, commitment and organization. Instead of 2001-2002 being the year when the downward slide intensified, it can be the watershed year when the Virgin Islands, in the most adverse circumstances, turned the corner to a brighter future.
Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He is one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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