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SENATORS, PUBLIC SPEAK ON TOURISM AUTHORITY BILL

May 15, 2003 – With a further tweak to the Tourism Authority bill before the Senate's Committee of the Whole meeting Wednesday night, private sector representatives conceded that they would consider a Tourism Authority dominated by the public sector.
The St. Thomas meeting, attended by a packed gallery of the business and professional community, was a continuation of a Tuesday night meeting on St. Croix.
The makeup of the authority board has been a stumbling block. The bill as introduced called for a board with five public-sector members and four business members, all to be appointed by the governor, with the hotel associations and chambers of commerce each to "recommend" a member to the governor. The private-sector members would require Senate confirmation. (See "Public to get its say on tourism bill.".)
In letters presented Wednesday to Sen. President David Jones, representatives of both island's hotel associations and chambers of commerce said they would agree to a board with a five-four split with the public sector having the five members.
"In retrospect, we may have gone too far with the proposal for a private sector majority of the board," St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce President Cassan Pancham said. "We have had some time to listen to the public, and some of the bill's sponsors are willing to modify our position."
This opinion was echoed by David Yamada, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, who said he would agree with a board comprising a government majority membership with a governor's cabinet-level tourism advisor and the first director "could be the present Tourism commissioner." However, Yamada said, the first chairperson of the commission would be a member of the private sector.
Frank Fox, in a letter sent Tuesday, and on WVWI radio Wednesday, said, "In a perfect world the composition of the Tourism Authority … would be a 'public sector' observer, and the 'private sector' filling the other positions." However, Fox said, "this doesn't mean other configurations of the 'public-private sector' would not be successful or that the St. Croix Chamber is inflexible … a board comprising five public and four private sector representatives could be successful too."
The V.I. has not changed the manner in which it manages tourism – the territory's livelihood – in 25 years, and it is rapidly losing pace with its Caribbean competitors, Yamada said. The proposed structure would "ensure more stability and consistency in the management of marketing our tourism destination."
He pointed out that the proposed structure would be "insulated from changes in political administrations." In Turnbull's administration alone there have been three Tourism commissioners.
Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards said Tuesday on St. Croix that the territory's Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund has collected almost $2 million more so far this fiscal year than in all of FY 2002. However, Richards' figures give pause. Yamada said Wednesday that FY 2002 was the worst year for any jurisdiction, inasmuch as it covers the events of Sept. 11 when global tourism was hard hit.
Numerous members of the public spoke in Wednesday night's long session, most of them favoring more public sector involvement. Kenneth Blake, chairman of the V. I. Carnival Committee, said the bill didn't address the Carnival celebrations on all three islands. He said the private sector hasn't been a big financial supporter of the festivities.
Senator Lorraine Berry and Sen. Louis Hill explained that the bill, indeed, covers funding for the Carnival celebrations, but perhaps doesn't spell it out specifically enough. Hill suggested a "cultural" representative, one who would be the watch guard of cultural history, be appointed to advise the authority, an idea Blake cottoned to.
Nick Pourzal, former 26-year managing director of Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort, spoke passionately in favor of the authority. Pourzal has long been involved with island tourism. "Government-run tourism doesn't work," he said. Pourzal defended the private-sector role, saying it would bring the professionalism the territory needs in how the territory is marketed.
Senator Carlton Dowe, one of the bill's sponsors, heartily agreed. Dowe said the time has come to let the professionals run the show, and not political appointees like "anybody's aunt or uncle or cousin." Dowe quickly defended Richards, whom he said he respected, and with whom he had gone to school. But, he stressed, "We need professionals."
Senator Celestino A. White made no bones about his position; he is vehemently against the authority, and he believes it would be harmful to taxi drivers. He said the bill was "another example of private industry 'trying to take over.' "I am against individuals that can't run their own businesses coming to run this one," he said.
Berry, an adamant sponsor of the bill, disagreed, citing the decline in V.I. tourism. She said the authority is necessary to keep the V.I. from falling further behind. "We are not maintaining our competitive edge, and we are being told this by industry professionals," she said.
Eddie Donahue, long-time political figure and recently running mate in former Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen's failed campaign for governor, was vitriolic in his condemnation of the bill, charging it would rob the governor of any power. "Bye, governor," he said.
Senators and private sector representatives disagreed, but Donahue didn't waver in his opinions. Donahue said, "This is the saddest day of my life."
Maria Brady, representing the League of Women Voters, expressed caution on the bill. "The league sees efforts to address the real and perceived deficiencies in the market of the V.I. … However, the language of some provisions is too broad and ambiguous," she said.
The League recommends a selection of a practical form of public-private partnership, with "public input in the development of any comprehensive tourism promotion plan," Brady said. The League took issue with several sections of the bill questioning fiscal matters and sections that disagree with current law.
"The League recognizes public-private partnerships can facilitate effective and efficient delivery of government services," the League's statement said, "and the time may be right for the tourism industry…"
Senators acknowledged the bill is still a work in progress, and pledged to address all the concerns brought to the floor Wednesday.
All senators except Emmett Hansen II, Norman Jn Baptiste and Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg attended the meeting. Donastorg was excused because of illness.

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