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Bryan: What Wasn’t in the Speech, Part II


Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. at Monday’s State of the Territory Address at the Legislature on St. Thomas. (Screenshot from SOTA livestream)

This is the second and final report on an interview with Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. Tuesday. The first is available here.

In his State of the Territory Address, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said the U.S. Virgin Islands needed 5,000 more workers to meet labor demands. He didn’t mean just government employees or private sector employees, but every conceivable job.

With federal disaster-recovery money flowing and a tourism sector quickly recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for labor may even cause an increase in illegal immigration, the governor said during a Tuesday interview. The pandemic economic slowdown hit the Caribbean very hard, especially the Eastern Caribbean, he said. Many of those places don’t have the luxury of dollars allocated from Washington, D.C., to spur local recovery efforts.

“Government spending begets private sector economic progress,” Bryan reiterated from a statement he made in his Monday night speech. But that progress can be fleeting if the territory isn’t ready to meet its needs.

“St. Croix just tripled the amount of cruise ship tourists they’re getting, right? They’re blowing up on a tourism side. Now, let’s say 3,000 people get off two cruise ships in St. Croix. Do we have the transportation to move 3,000 people? Can 20 people go to a restaurant and eat at the same time, at the same table and get out of there at a reasonable time?” he asked. “So now there’s this pressure on the private sector to produce for that population. Otherwise, we lose it. That’s just in tourism, in one sector, right? Just for cruise ship passengers in St. Croix.”

On St. Thomas, needed construction workers could help three hotels reopen in 2023, Bryan said, which would require 600 employees.

At the same time, the territory is facing an affordable housing crisis — both for lower- and middle-income Virgin Islanders. Bryan said the answer is fourfold. If situated in out-of-the-way places, the territory could add high-density housing without supplanting the charming green space that delights locals and tourists alike. Such development on St. Thomas is difficult and nearly impossible on St. John, but St. Croix has ample space for this sort of housing, he said.

Secondly, Bryan said the derelict and abandoned properties across the territory aren’t just an eyesore but often historically important. Moreover, many are places people could live. Bryan’s plan to incentivize property owners to revitalize these properties includes the government temporarily taking control and helping get renovations underway.

Thirdly, Bryan wants to institute an apartment rehab subsidy. The governor estimated as many as 800 apartments in the territory sit empty because they need substantial repairs after the 2017 storms. He hoped helping owners make needed upgrades would get those apartments into the rental market.

“We are going to give you a subsidy to get those going and I think that’ll make more rental properties available, and that’ll ease, again, on the pressure we have on rent,” he said.

Finally, would-be house builders are aiming too high. St. Thomas needs to build more like Manhattan, Bryan said, making the most of smaller housing footprints. And unlike New York housing, Virgin Islanders have year-round nice weather to take advantage of with greater emphasis on outdoor space.

“And that way you can build affordable homes. So instead of building a 3,000-square-foot home, you have a 1,200-square-foot home with a lot of porch outside,” he said. “We don’t have winters.”

Bryan said he frequently hears from Virgin Islanders complaining about the price of building a new home.

“I was like, how big is your house? Like 4,000 square feet. I’m like, come on now. Right? Like, how, like that didn’t make sense. Can’t start at a 4,000,” the governor said. “We really need smaller spaces, cheaper to cool, cheaper to pay the light bill, cheaper to maintain.”

While Bryan didn’t have any easy answers for solving the Water and Power Authority’s difficulties with its preferred propane supplier, he did support getting to the bottom of the contract dispute. It’s one of the few areas, however, where he advocated a slow, careful approach. The Legislature’s call for an investigation could potentially tie up the Inspector General’s Office indefinitely — drawing the investigative body away from countless other audits of potential public corruption and governmental waste.

Bryan asked, instead, that the Inspector General’s Office draw up a potential timeline and scope of work for assessing WAPA’s contract dispute with fuel supplier Vitol. He said the Legislature’s efforts to force an Inspector General investigation may have been well intentioned but were, in reality, pandering to political pressure from constituents in an election year.

Now that the Government Employees’ Retirement System is on a more stable footing, Bryan said policymakers should work on reforming the pension parameters. GERS should be for retirement savings and emergency use, not a prize for public-sector employment, the governor said.

“They need to start saying this mantra to me: The retirement system was never created as a reward system for working. It is a sustaining system for when you can’t work. So we’ve been using it as an application, as an award or reward for 30 years of work,” he said. “That’s not what it was set up to do.”

People are living much longer than when the system was set up, and are healthier as they age, Bryan said.

“The president is 78 years old. The president,” he exclaimed. “The incentive right now is for everybody to go home and chill after 20 years. And I, that’s just not … I, I love the idea myself, but we can’t afford it.”

Drawing from the system before age 65 should come with heavier penalties, he said, and the system should make greater provisions for people with legitimate disabilities that aren’t able to work anymore.

“If you’re totally disabled, if you’re a police and you’ve been stressed out for 20 years, your heart is failing. Well, yeah, you can. Right. But if you are strong and you’re able to do anything, you should get a little bit of money every month because you are retired and then you know, you find another job,” Bryan said.

Zoning is another area of concern for the governor. Bryan said efforts to create a comprehensive land and water use plan were underway but development should not wait on it.

The governor wants to create centralized economic zones on St. Croix like those on St. Thomas and St. John. The current situation is scattered with half-built ideas, he said.

“St. Thomas works a lot better because all of the economic activities are concentrated in economic activity centers: downtown Charlotte Amalie, French Town, Red Hook, and Havensight,” he said. “Right now my project in St. Croix is Miracle Mile, where you have the Legislature, you have GERS, you have the federal court building, you have the Casino Commission, you have gas stations, you have Banco Popular, and you have Golden Rock. That’s forcing a lot of economic activity in there.”

Clustering businesses into small areas creates opportunities for more businesses. People working in shops and office buildings all have to eat. And those restaurant workers will, in turn, frequent the nearby shops.

“If you can concentrate these things, you have more stability. So that’s, that’s one of the reasons why we, you know, we forced government workers back to work too, because, like, if people are staying in the house, they’re not spending any money. That local spending is important to everybody,” the governor said.

Transforming spaces isn’t limited to St. Croix, though. Bryan has two ideas to revitalize downtown Charlotte Amalie. One is to create a low-tax economic zone between the west end of Main Street and Market Square for high-end art galleries and international auction houses. He pictures Christie’s and Sotheby’s attracting millionaires to bid on works of fine art in the district.

Another idea is to gather fine artists to paint murals along the walls of backstreet. An increase in foot traffic would lead to new business opportunities along the once bustling corridor that has fallen on hard times. The hope is to create momentum, generate positive word-of-mouth reviews, and highlight innovative talent.

“Immediately you draw everybody to want to go and walk and see the murals, understand about them, and then those businesses, or the buildings would gain incredible value again,” he said.

Bryan said that spirit — publicly putting the territory’s best foot forward — was part of what led to the dismissal of Attorney General Denise George.

“First and foremost, you know, I can’t have an attorney general that’s launching civil suits that I don’t know about,” the governor said. “I personally, and I’m sure many other Virgin Islanders alike, don’t like our name being associated with Jeffrey Epstein and child pornography. You know, why are we going down that rabbit hole? And the irony to me was, you know, four years ago everybody was scrambling not to have been on Jeffrey Epstein’s receiving end of donations. Now we’re suing him for the same dirty money. That seems a little awkward, right? I mean, that’s inconsistent. And I just want to get us away from that. That’s not the light we want to be seen in. If we never mention Jeffrey Epstein again, it would be good for me.”

Bryan said he never met the disgraced financier but acknowledged it was very likely some Virgin Islanders knew what was going on at Epstein’s Little St. James private island estate.

“I mean, you know, this is not a place where people don’t talk,” the governor said but added he was eager to move on. “On the criminal side, I don’t have any problem, but that’s the kind of exposure that my seat at 30,000 feet allows me to understand. I have to put on the record, no one in the Virgin Islands is really overly occupied with Epstein, his estate or his bad doings.”

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