“Agriculture, agriculture, agriculture.”
That was V.I. Economic Development Authority CEO Wayne Biggs Jr.’s reaction last week to Vision 2040 survey results that revealed agriculture as the No. 1 industry Virgin Islanders on all three islands and abroad want to see growth in the territory.
“I’m surprised that agriculture is No. 1, although I think some of it may be as a result of the two storms, the pandemic,” Biggs said, referring to the twin Category 5 hurricanes of September 2017. “Food security is on everyone’s mind. Definitely, we need to develop agriculture and provide more fruits and vegetables here locally that we can gather fresh. But I’m not sure it should be first for 20 years out,” he said.
Biggs was speaking during a series of virtual town halls held last week to reveal the preliminary results of the three island-specific surveys as well as one directed at the U.S. Virgin Islands diaspora as part of the government’s long-term economic development plan.
Vision 2040 – funded by a $1.2 million grant from U.S. Economic Development Administration, with a 10 percent match paid for by the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority – was announced in October by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.
So far, the effort that is on track to produce a completed draft plan by February has included several interactive town halls, a virtual open house, island and diaspora surveys, an ongoing business survey, an invitation for general comment on the project’s website, as well as working groups and focus groups affiliated with different sectors of the economy.
A total of 700 people in the diaspora, 196 on St. John, 1,114 on St. Croix and 601 on St. Thomas completed the survey. That’s a remarkable response, said Dan Gundersen of Camoin 310, the national economic development firm overseeing the first phase of the project.
“We can say that the results in the Virgin Islands are phenomenal,” Gundersen said. “This response to a survey – particularly St. Croix – I haven’t seen that in any other county where I’ve worked,” he said, including Los Angeles, with a population of 10 million people. “It should be a source of pride.”
While the surveys revealed some differences between the islands – St. Thomas respondents listed arts and culture as the No. 2 industry to develop, St. John conservation and St. Croix health care, for example – they also showed consensus when it comes to barriers to growth.
Not surprisingly, the cost of electricity topped the list of highest economic priorities, except on St. John, where it came second to housing affordability.
“Definitely something we have to work on is the cost of electricity. Not only the cost, but the reliability,” Biggs said, noting that the St. John town hall had to be moved from Tuesday to Friday last week due to widespread power outages for several days running in the district. “We have to work on that if we are going to be economically viable.”
“It’s very hard to sustain a business when you might have, quite literally, the plug pulled on you at any time throughout the day,” Gundersen said. “This is something that is improving but has a long ways to go here.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was what did not turn up in the surveys, Gundersen said.
“I think it’s interesting that the two largest sectors of the economy today you don’t see on any of these charts, and that is tourism and government. We’re not seeing that there. I think that is a positive indicator that the focus is on diversifying the economy, and people have some very strong ideas on how we can do that,” Gundersen said.
The full survey results, laid out in charts, graphs and word clouds, can be viewed at the Vision 2040 website.
Camoin 310 will take a deeper dive into the data over the next few weeks and release more information on the website as it becomes available, said Gundersen.
For example, his firm is looking at the movement of businesses between islands, and why that happens, Gundersen said. They’ll also delve into the focus on arts and culture by survey respondents.
“The fact that it is showing up as a job opportunity is quite fascinating,” Gundersen said. “You don’t often think of that in economic development circles as a target industry or a focus. Here, clearly, the fact that two islands are ranking it in the top 5 is something that needs to be considered.”
The biggest surprise for him, said Biggs, was that “advance tech” did not rank higher as a sector to develop – it was last on the top 5 list on St. Croix and St. Thomas and did not even make the cut on St. John.
“I would have liked to have seen advanced technology more on people’s minds,” said Biggs, especially during a pandemic that has fundamentally altered the way the world works, and also because 8 in 10 of diaspora survey respondents said they would consider moving back, but 2 in 10 would need a remote work option to do so.
“I think, Dan, we have the opportunity to leverage that remote work option. We can really look at how do we get people here, even if their jobs are somewhere else,” Biggs said to Gunderson. “I think if we take advantage of the middle mile broadband facilities we have here, there’s a lot that can be done in reference to advanced tech. There’s lots and lots of bandwidth and ways that we can develop that bandwidth.”
“Yes, there has been a brain drain, but there is something that is keeping them tied,” he said, noting that 50 percent of diaspora survey respondents said they return home annually, even those who have lived away for 20 or more years.
“We think this is part of the job creation story for the future, if we can leverage it,” Gundersen said. “I think it’s really powerful. I can’t think of any other place, certainly that I have worked with over 20 years in this economic development field, where there is such a strong magnetic pull. This speaks very well of the islands.”
“There is a lot of talent here,” Gundersen said of the diaspora. “So many communities – they’re trying to figure out how to attract companies, but more and more it’s how do you attract talent. And today, talent and companies, talent and business, are almost synonymous,” he said.
As his firm delves deeper into the results in the coming weeks, “we can pretty well guarantee that the targeted industries will all have one thing in common – that technology is embedded and changing the nature of each one of these industries,” said Gundersen. “We will understand that and develop recommendations to get us closer to being much more competitive with the competitors we identify in the Caribbean and throughout the world.”
“That doesn’t mean at the expense of tourism,” but rather the development of a more “V.I.-centric” tourism focused on culture, heritage, wellness, sports, adventure “and many of the other things that come out of the special characteristics of the Virgin Islands,” Gundersen said.
Last week’s virtual town halls can be viewed on Facebook at USVI Vision 2040. The survey results are online on the Vision 2040 site, which also has the survey results, to take the business survey that closes on Dec. 31 or to leave a comment.