Undercurrents: Chamber Links with Government to Strengthen Economy

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

If commerce is driving the economy, who’s steering the Ship of State?

Some local business leaders like to think of it as a copilot situation.

Sebastiano Paiewonsky Cassinelli, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, says the last few years have been marked by close cooperation between the public and private sector, and he’s confident the collaboration will continue under the new administration of Gov. Kenneth Mapp.

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The organization also partners with other civic groups – including the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, which will be featured in an upcoming column.

Founded in 1927, and rechartered in 1944, the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber has been a constant on the V.I. scene for decades, sometimes exerting muscle and sometimes providing the heavy lifting.

Currently it has “almost 400” members, according to long-term Executive Director Joseph Aubain. Once heavily weighted to retail and tourism, the membership now encompasses all types of business, according to Cassinelli.

Criteria for membership is simple: A company must be properly licensed to do business in the territory and it must pay annual dues to the chamber. Those dues are determined on a sliding scale according to size, starting at $200 a year for a company with one or two employees, and topping off at $2,500 for 500 or more employees. There’s also provision for nonprofits ($225) and for individuals ($150.)

The purpose of the chamber is “to foster a climate in the community in which business can prosper and to be of service to the community in ways that go beyond the conduct of business,” according to its website. It’s a broad mandate that encompasses everything from lobbying efforts for business-friendly legislation to marketing campaigns to participation in local charity efforts.

Cassinelli became president in July 2012. Although officially he’s part of the executive committee that was to serve from 2012 to 2014, the directors and officers won’t actually be replaced until August 2015, according to Aubain. As is the custom, then the first vice president – in this case, former First Lady Cecile deJongh – will take over as president.

At the start of his term, Cassinelli said the chamber organized itself to focus on four initiatives:

– Protecting and revitalizing the historic district and enhancing tourism;
– Attracting capital and supporting economic development programs;
– Energy;
– Banking and the flow of credit.

Cassinelli ticked off some of the actions the chamber has taken on the first three, and said his successor will take the lead on the last: banking and credit flow.

The Chamber of Commerce has been particularly active on the first front, working with other civic groups, especially Downtown Revitalization Inc. and the Community Foundation of Virgin Islands, and with the Department of Public Works.

The chamber cosponsored public forums to air the government’s plans for creating landfill in Charlotte Amalie Harbor in order to widen Veterans Drive. Cassinelli said, “We’re close to consensus” on the design of the project from the Long Bay intersection to the Blyden marine terminal.

The chamber also worked with Public Works to get Charlotte Amalie Harbor designated as a transportation corridor and thus eligible for Federal Highway Administration funding for public marine transport. As envisioned, the system will consist of small boats serving several stops at Crown Bay, Hassel Island and along the Waterfront and the Yacht Haven area. It will be the sea side of the public bus system operated by VITRAN.

One portion of the historic district revitalization is temporarily stalled, Cassinelli noted. The Main Street enhancement project, which includes renovation of sidewalks, the installation of lighting to mimic historical fixtures and the laying of cobblestones, was to have started in April 2014, but an unsuccessful contractor sued the government over the bidding process. Cassinelli said he’s hopeful the government will resolve the issue quickly.

On the economic development front, he cited legislative action to make EDC benefits in the territory more attractive as a major success. Another helpful boost to the economy is the elimination of the so-called six pack rule, thus freeing charter boats carrying fewer than 12 passengers from meeting stringent federal regulations.

As for the chamber’s energy initiatives, Cassinelli said, “You have to go back two and a half years to when we started this.” At the time, the V.I. Water and Power Authority was almost totally dependent on oil and the price of electricity in the territory was staggering, he said. Many businesses closed, blaming the high cost of electricity as a major reason for their failure. The chamber established a committee that included WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge and members of his team, Cassinelli said.

“This was more of a role of a facilitator” for the chamber, Cassinelli said, as WAPA made the conversion to more diverse energy sources. “We’ve been supportive in key areas,” he added, including the conversion to propane, expansion of solar power and exploration of other renewable sources. And WAPA is about to issue a request for proposal for wind energy generation and has hired a consultant to analyze its own efficiency, Cassinelli said.

“I think the community is going to be very surprised” at the reduction in electricity costs in 2015, he said.

The price of electricity already dropped for residential customers from 51 cents per kilowatt in late 2014, to 31 cents in January, he said. On the commercial front, it went recently went from approximately 54 cents to 41 cents, and for his own family business, AH Riise, that meant a savings of $11,000 in one month, Cassinelli said.

The lower cost of utilities “is going to create a lot more disposable income,” he said. And disposable income generally translates to business activity.

The chamber is also preparing to tackle another issue that has proven highly controversial in the past: barkers.

Their presence in the tourist district of downtown Charlotte Amalie “has caused reputational damage for the territory,” Cassinelli said, as visitors often complain about them on Internet travel sites, on social media and in other venues. The group is suggesting legislation to ban or more strictly regulate them.

Cassinelli didn’t want to discuss details, but he said some senators have already expressed support for the idea.

One of the chamber’s goals for 2015 is to reach out to and work more closely with the Legislature, he said.

“The public sector cannot do everything,” and collaboration between business and government is key to growth, he added.

The administration of former Gov. John deJongh Jr. was a great partner, he said, and Mapp has already signaled that he will build on those efforts. “We have all the ingredients for success.”

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