A team of U.S. Virgin Islands government officials led by Gov. John deJongh Jr. took part in the 2012 Annual Southern Governors’ Association conference in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
The conference began Friday, and opened with a daylong session discussing economic development and growth in the American South and Caribbean regions. Also on the schedule were a Southern States Energy Board meeting and a session on strengthening the region’s ties to Latin America by expanding and investing in the region’s ports, which deJongh said was particularly important given the impending expansion of the Panama Canal, doubling its capacity, allowing more and larger ships to transit and result in transshipment opportunities for certain countries.
"In creating the increased demand and traffic, it will also require us to re-evaluate the strategic value-added positioning of our ports and make the required investments to be competitive for transshipment business,” deJongh said.
Session speakers included Alberto Alemán Zubieta, administrator and chief executive officer of the Panama Canal Authority; Myron Gray, president for U.S. Operations of UPS; and Jerry Bridges, executive director of the Virginia Port Authority and chairman of the American Association of Port Authorities.
The Panama Canal will soon have a third lane that can accommodate mega-ships almost three times larger than any vessel that has ever traveled across the isthmus. Channels are being deepened and widened to accommodate the heightened activity of both industrial and tourism-centered traffic. The Panama Canal is projected to be completed by the end of 2014.
Joining the governor at the SGA session were Robert O’Connor, chairman of the board of the Virgin Islands Port Authority; Nathan Simmonds, deputy chief of staff to the governor; Tourism Commissioner and Virgin Islands Port Authority Vice-Chair Beverly Nicholson-Doty; WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge, Energy Office Director Karl Knight and other Government House senior staff.
Prior to the business session on ports and infrastructure development, Puerto Rico's Gov. Luis Fortuno addressed welcomed participants to the conference and acknowledged the importance of economic development as a key and strategic regional priority.
“Economic development is vital to our shared prosperity as a region,” he said.
During the morning session, the region’s economic development leaders discussed a variety of topics on retaining, growing and attracting businesses, and reviewed the capabilities of SGA’s recently unveiled online Geographic Information Systems mapping tool highlighting the American South’s economic growth assets.
“Today’s global, competitive market necessitates that states and territories identify new markets and become more engaged in developing export opportunities for our businesses to grow and be globally competitive," deJongh said. "Through the V.I. Economic Development Authority, the territory is utilizing the recently applied for and received State Trade and Export Promotion program and the State Small Business Credit Initiative grant funds to provide direct assistance to our businesses and to explore the feasibility of exporting opportunities. Oftentimes businesses, especially small businesses, are creditworthy, but are not receiving the loans they need to expand and create jobs. This type of support is in place to help our businesses thrive and work towards achieving competitive advantages in their areas of expertise, no matter how large or small.”
The three-hour energy session provided a platform to highlight key priorities on that front, including regional energy strategies, diversification and conservation initiatives. The board meeting was an opportunity for members from the public and private sectors to discuss state and territorial energy initiatives, as well as coal combustion product management, liquid natural gas applications, and other innovative technologies and solutions.
“The diversification of the territory’s energy portfolio, including energy conservation, is key to my administration’s goal of reducing fossil fuel consumption 60 percent by 2025," deJongh said. "Our transition away from fossil-fuel based energy systems, towards a mix of alternative energy technologies, is a necessary and important next step in the Territory’s strategic energy and economic development priorities.”