St. Croix will survive the economic challenges posed by the closure of its major employer, according to Gov. John deJongh Jr., who addressed the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.
The future will look different than the past, but the island and the territory will survive, he said.
DeJongh spoke at the Chamber’s annual breakfast at the Palms at Pelican Cove, talking about the challenges to St. Croix’s economy and its resurgence in the aftermath of the closure of the Hovensa refinery.
The governor presented what he called a comprehensive plan for the island’s economic future, focusing on several key areas of development and assistance. St. Croix’s economy will recover without its flagship business, he said, but everyone will have to work together to make that happen.
The immediate focus, deJongh said, is to continue building on the foundation in place for a sustainable and more diverse economy, one that creates job opportunities for St. Croix residents and promotes the social conditions that contribute to a high quality of life: health, safety, and education.
The governor told the gathered business leaders that officials in his administration are trying to minimize the refinery’s closure in whatever ways possible.
Job creation is a priority, he said, noting that while the closure of the territory’s largest private employer will hurt the economy, the action leaves a skilled workforce ready to take on new responsibilities and serve new employers.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to reshape our future and will continue to build on the strength and will of our people to succeed and prosper. I encourage you as members of the private sector to be involved and engaged,” he said.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is borrowing from the federal government to pay its share of unemployment benefits, he said, and through the Department of Labor has deployed rapid response teams to assist those who were recently put out of work.
“We are providing relief each month to struggling families throughout the territory and continue taking steps to stabilize the economy.”
The governor also noted recent positive economic developments in the territory. This week, deJongh accepted the first case of locally produced Captain Morgan Rum from executives of Diageo Brands, a sign of the steady production under way at the St. Croix distillery.
In the coming months, the distillery’s Visitors Center will open to the public, and as the world’s second-largest producer of beer, wine and spirits, Diageo is considering new product lines for the island, deJongh told the group.
He discussed several measures his administration is implementing to boost the local economy, including the territory’s broadband project, additional airlift, enhanced marketing by the Department of Tourism, and ongoing efforts by the Economic Development Authority to attract more businesses to the territory.
“All the key elements are in place to sustain the ambitions of everyone who lives here and transform the territory to new levels of prosperity,” he said.
The governor discussed tax reform, including the possibility of implementing a sales tax, import tax or slightly raising the gross receipts tax rate as a means of increasing revenue during the fiscal crisis.
The governor also told chamber members that improved public safety is a major aspect of the island’s economic renewal. Under newly confirmed Police Commissioner Henry White Jr., the Virgin Islands will continue its trend toward a more effective, efficient and accountable police department, deJongh said.
Self-interest of businesses must be aligned with a broader public interest, the governor concluded. He urged them to work with him to achieve such an alignment — one that benefits all Virgin Islanders.
The business leaders gave the governor a standing ovation after his remarks, and Chamber of Commerce President and Chairman Stuart Logan said deJongh “remains strong and steadfast in facing the challenges before us.”