Undercurrents: St. Croix Open for Business

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

Business leaders on both sides of the “Big Pond” have found some common ground in the last few years, although provincial interests still dictate largely individualized agendas.

The great leveler has been the high cost of electricity. Both the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce (highlighted last week) and the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce (highlighted this week) have identified lowering the cost of utilities as a major goal.

In recent years, “the toughest challenge that businesses have faced economically has been the cost of electricity” and so the “first priority is to ensure that we have cheaper energy as soon as humanly possible,” said St. Croix Chamber President Mark Eckhard.

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“The chamber has been very supportive of WAPA’s efforts to reduce the cost of electricity on the island” as it moves towards alternative energy sources such as propane, wind and solar, Eckhard said. “Frankly, we don’t care what it is, we just want cheaper energy now.”

Eckhard also expressed concern for more reliable and affordable Internet service, adding that since the V.I. Next Generation Network broadband project is completed, residents will one day have the same or better bandwidth and Internet speeds as people enjoy in Manhattan.

“When we get access to the fiber optic cable that’s been laid all over the island, the possibilities will be endless,” he said. “We’ve got it in the ground. Now it’s important that we follow through and get businesses and residents access … and it has to be cheaper than what we’re paying now.”

Eckhard noted that “people telecommunicate from all over the world.” So having faster and more reliable service not only improves existing businesses, it opens opportunities for new jobs.

“In addition to marketing St. Croix as a place to visit, we should market St. Croix as a place to live,” he said. “Why not make St. Croix its own RT (Research and Technology) Park going forward?”

Citing the nationwide “mortgage meltdown” of 2008, and the 2012 closing of the Hovensa oil refinery as major factors creating a “monumental period of time” of economic stress for St. Croix, Eckhard said the island’s population has decreased as its unemployment rate has increased.

He sees a remedy specific to St. Croix.

“The chamber believes we need to put people back to work on our South Shore,” Eckhard said. “We think we should reindustrialize our South Shore industrial complex.”

It’s a “shame” to leave thousands of acres sitting largely unused and a port facility inactive, he said, adding he’d like to see the proposed transshipment facility developed.

The chamber has not taken a position on the price of gasoline, he said. Nor is it likely to be directly involved in a move to control barkers, since they are an issue only on St. Thomas.

But like the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce representatives, Eckhard cited private-public sector partnership as important and said he’s confident of continued cooperation with the local government.

“We had a very strong relationship with former Gov. John deJongh,” he said. “We’re very excited about the energy that Gov. (Kenneth) Mapp and his administration are bringing to their jobs.”

As one good sign of the anticipated collaboration, he said the new commissioner of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, Devin Carrington, called him just to open the lines of communication. It was highly encouraging “to see the new commissioner reach out like that.”

Eckhard also praised the newly elected St. Croix district senators and Delegate to Congress Stacy Plaskett.

Eckhard is in his second year of a two-year term as chamber president. He first moved to St. Croix in 1996, left to attend law school, and returned in 2006 as an attorney. He’s been on the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce board since 2011.

The chamber was established in 1924, according to its website, which lists 224 members in its directory.

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