Senators got few specific details from the administration when discussing Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s request for $1 million for an array of unspecified expenses it may undertake to get several name-brand hotels onto St. Croix.
The legislation calls for $1 million to pay for "professional services, studies, and expenses related to the planned development and financing of The St. Croix Brand Hotel Project.
Senators looked over a recently completed study from HVS Consultant and Evaluation LLC that found St. Croix could use three large high-end branded hotels and questioned Public Finance Authority Director Joanne Bozzuto and Budget Director Nellon Bowry about the plan. Senators repeatedly said they supported the plan in principal but wanted more information and more checks on how the money is spent. The measure was held for planned amendments to require periodic reports as the money is disbursed.
Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly O’Reilly asked for details about the planned uses for the $1 million.
"There is not a line item budget," Bozzuto said, adding that the principals of the Amalago Bay hotel project proposed for Frederiksted "came to us when they experienced excessive and extreme delays from the federal agencies." She suggested that some activity to address that might come under the purview of the legislation, but did not say it definitely would.
Dealing with unnamed entities in China was a major point emphasized by both Bowry and Bozzuto.
When Mapp and administration officials went to China in late May and early June, "we met with Chinese hedge funds who have high, high net worth clients," Bozzuto said.
She said "we need to find people who are willing to invest in these projects where these people have not been able to do so themselves."
Asked why $1 million was needed, Bozzuto said that the U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus "was very clear that to build a relationship with China, you must come, you must be persistent, you must build a relationship and you must persist."
She also said "our Washington counsel introduced us to an investment fund that has high net worth, Chinese businesses and individuals, and there are incentives for immigration, EB5 and other things to have foreign nationals are able to invest."
According to the U.S. State Department, the EB-5 program gives wealthy entrepreneurs and their families permanent U.S. residency if they invest in the U.S.A. and create at least 10 jobs.
Sen. Positive Nelson asked if the money was needed to arrange the EB-5 status.
"I think part of the money is to pursue all options to bring equity investments into the territory," Bozzuto said.
Sen. Kurt Vialet said an amendment would be offered to include a reporting element on how the money is spent.
At the close of the hearing, Bowry said he was "encouraged" and that he feels they are largely in agreement. He endorsed the idea of a reporting requirement.
"I don’t think it is unreasonable for you to request periodic report because this is not just about the $1 million. This is about a major development. It is a priority of this administration and I know a priority of this institution to address the economic doldrums we are in. … I view this as more than just a $1 million request for an appropriation," Bowry aid.
The committee also heard testimony on a lease on St. Croix for agricultural land to set up a freshwater shrimp aquaculture business. Kalayar Myint and Duane Sydney plan to use their $30,000 prize in the annual 13D entrepreneurship contest to set up the venture. The V.I. Government plans to lease the pair five acres of former V.I. Corp. land that is zoned for agriculture, at a cost of $100 per year.
The lease was held in committee to resolve some issues with the lease’s drafting language, but senators were highly supportive of the project.
Present were Sens. Kurt Vialet, Marvin Blyden, Myron Jackson, Sammuel Sanes, Positive Nelson, Tregenza Roach and Clifford Graham. No members were absent. Non-members, Sens. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and Neville James were also present.