Esther Vassar is just one of thousands of people who have paid a visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands this season, but she wasn’t here for the beaches or snorkeling.
"I haven’t been to the beach once," she said.
And even though a visit to the new Diageo distillery on St. Croix was near the top of her agenda, she wasn’t here to drink, either. In fact she said she doesn’t drink at all, "except for a little Bailey’s in my coffee."
Vassar is the national ombudsman for the U.S. Small Business Administration, and Friday she said she was visiting St. Croix for one reason only – to listen.
"I want to see how small business is doing here," she said Friday morning, addressing a business group at the Small Business Development Center.
When people stateside think of the territory at all, she said, they think about resorts and beachside villas. In that scenario, "everything’s fine, everybody is rich. Nobody thinks about the people who live here."
So Vassar came to hear what is happening in the lives of the people who live and work on the island, and to get ideas about what can make their lives better. It’s been a full trip.
Her agenda began with a meeting with Congressional Delegate Donna Cristensen, then a local radio talk show where she took calls from people listening in.
Thursday she went with Lt. Gov. Gregory Francis to a bankers round table, where she listened to people in the financial industry discuss the island’s economy. That was followed by another radio talk show, then a meeting with the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce.
Friday started for her with yet another radio talk show, followed by the meetng at the SBDC’s office in the Sunshine Mall. And it was followed by another meeting with Francis.
Vassar said she spends a lot of time on the go, learning what it’s like on the ground in New Orleans and San Diego, Kansas and Seattle and St. Croix. Every place is different, with different problems and opportunities she said.
One of the problems she often hears about is the amount and complexity of federal regulations which keep owners of small businesses constantly filling out paperwork instead of running their business.
She said she was listening to comments on how regulations affect small businesses and carrying them back to the agencies in Washington.
Those agencies aren’t evil, she added, and don’t want to be stepping on the throats of small business. But they don’t always think about the impact that a rule aimed at a business with, say, a thousand employees might impact one with three or four, especially a small business in a small territory far from the center of power.
Friday morning she learned some of the problems unique to busnesses on St. Croix.
One that got the most attention was the "six-pack rule," which has severely crimped the charter boat industry in the territory, according to Chamber of Commerce Director Michael Dembeck.
The rule is so called because boats rated to carry six or fewer passengers are subject to one, less stringent set of rules from the U.S. Coast Guard, while anything larger is subject to much more thorough, exhaustive and expensive inspections, not significantly different from the regulations on cruise ships which carry thousands of people.
Charter boats used to cruise throughout the Caribbean, stopping often in the Virgin Islands, and St. Croix was home to a healthy charter fleet, Dembeck said. But the tightening of border security in the face of terror fears means charters from other islands now face as much as half a day of paperwork, Customs and Coast Guard inspections. It’s easier for boats to bypass the territory, and that means a lot of business sailing right past the U.S. islands, he said.
If Vassar were to visit Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, he said, she wuld see a harbor full of charter boats, a thriving industry.
Changing the six-pack rule so that it encompassed slightly larger vessels, perhaps boats rated to hold a dozen or 15 passengers, could make a huge difference, he said.
Several people at the session complained that qualified, capable local businesses are often shut out of the contracts for federal work for the National Park Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and other government programs.
Vassar said all the comments she has received during her visit will be taken back to the nation’s capital and brought to the attention of the appropriate agency, and she won’t let go of it until the issue is resolved.
"You might not always like the answer, but it will be resolved," she said.