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Cruisin' Along: Why is Everybody Pointing Fingers on the St. Croix Cruise Ship Debacle

Nov. 28, 2004 — I have been silent on most public issues for the last two years because I thought it respectful to step back and permit those elected in 2002 the chance to fulfill their promises without constant comment and criticism. It seemed only fair that we, as a community, work together as we are one in these Virgin Islands — our successes and failures are unavoidably linked. But circumstances of the last weeks, particularly the public back and forth surrounding the work of the Cruise Ship Task Force and the Agreement that was submitted over fifty months ago and approved by the Senate over forty-seven months ago, gives me great concern. The importance of this issue to St. Croix as well as an open process in government impel me to break this silence.
From 1999 to 2001, I served as co-chairman of the Cruise Ship Task Force; chairing every meeting, coordinating dates and times, writing the minutes and authoring the draft Agreements that ultimately resulted in the final Agreement and report that went to the Governor and the Senate President on September 13, 2000. The Task Force consisted of fifteen individuals from the private and public sectors and representatives of the cruise lines through the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA). We all had different points of view, but our core purpose, our sole objective, was to grow the cruise ship passenger traffic in the Territory. Not everyone on the Task Force was pleased with every aspect of the final Agreement, but it represented a workable compromise of positions to ensure an achievable Agreement. The projected financial benefit to the Territory from implementation of the proposed Agreement was estimated at $760.9 million, exclusive of the payment of Gross Receipts Taxes and Corporate Income Taxes. To tip the scales to ensure broader coordination and success of the Agreement, the Economic Recovery Task Force, of which I was also chairman, included the adoption of the Cruise Ship Task Force report and final Agreement as an initiative to be added to the Five Year Strategic and Operating Plan submitted to Governor Turnbull in April 2000.
It became clearer, as our negotiations continued, that our real task was geared to building cruise traffic to St. Croix. We were all working towards an agreement that would show commitment on the part of the Government, the private sector and the cruise lines. Given its customer demand as the premier port of call in the Caribbean, St. Thomas would likely achieve a growth pattern leading to record numbers of visits. Our challenge and commitment was to grow St. Croix traffic. The cruise line officials never veered from their standard line: an identity for St. Croix needs to be developed that sells the destination, creates excitement in the destination, and generates customer demand. The Agreement provided that senior marketing officials from the cruise lines would assist in drafting the marketing plan with the Department of Tourism in conjunction with the V.I. Port Authority, The West Indian Company, and the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce. (Clause #10 of the Agreement). To ensure the commitment of the cruise lines to allocate to the Territory (and specifically St. Croix) the passenger traffic, we not only specified what would be defined as a passenger vessel, but also incorporated monetary penalties if the cruise lines did not meet the required targets, with the Department of Tourism as the monitoring and assessing agency. (Clause #12) To show the Government’s commitment to the process and the outcome, the marketing plan had to be completed within six months of approval of the Agreement. (Clause #3) Finally, to further continuing education about, and increased awareness of, the cruise industry, the FCCA agreed to contribute $100,000 to a scholarship program in a side agreement. (Clause #8).
The actions of the last two weeks represent nothing more than finger-pointing in the ‘blame game’ that has become commonplace in implementing public policy and accepting responsibility. This buck passing leads nowhere. It results in no constructive debate and no solutions. In this case we do not have a single new cruise ship calling in St. Croix as a result of the Agreement; that next passenger shopping in a Christiansted store or getting into a taxi in Fredricksted to tour the island has not arrived. If the Department of Tourism did not produce the marketing plan, then why didn’t the parties to the Agreement write a memo to the Commissioner at the seventh month (with a copy to the Governor) inquiring or requesting a meeting? If the Department of Tourism did produce the marketing plan, then why was it done without the involvement of the other parties to the Agreement to achieve proper content and maximum coordination? And, again, if it was produced, and St. Croix is not experiencing the increased passenger traffic, why hasn’t the Department of Tourism assessed the penalties allowed in the Agreement? How much of the $100,000 for the scholarship program has been collected, and how many students have benefited?
When I inquired about the status of the Agreement during the summer of 2001, I was politely told that my assistance was no longer required. Fair enough. But someone’s assistance is needed. Solutions can only be reached through dialogue, a dialogue that requires meetings with the FCCA. The existing Agreement provides a template for action and discussion, but we must also be realistic and acknowledge that time has passed, and inaction may require some changes to fit today’s circumstances. A private sector labor force in St. Croix that has scarcely grown since 1999, a median income that has not budged during this period and poverty levels that have increased are causes for concern and action, not neglect and finger-pointing.
My faith in our future is neither deaf to the voices of gloom and doom that bombard us every day, nor blind to the realties that some special interests will try to impede progress. I have hope in our future – hope in St. Croix’s future. I know we can deliver higher quality government services much more efficiently. We can also have a government that keeps its word and does its job. But we can only do this if we speak with each other and work together. We can only do this with Leadership.
Editor's note: John de Jongh, Jr., served as Commissioner of Finance and Executive Assistant to the Governor during the Administration of Alexander A. Farrelly and served as chairman of the Economic Recovery Task Force and co-Chairman of the Cruise Ship Task Force.
Editors note:We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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