While many have heard of the Research and Technology Park on UVI’s St. Croix campus, few may understand its role in fostering economic diversity in the Virgin Islands – including in agriculture and STEM education for the territory’s youth.
Executive Director and CEO Peter Chapman and Chief of Staff Aminah Saleem discussed that mission and more on Thursday during an episode of the Press Box, the virtual town hall held each week at Government House on St. Croix and streamed live on Facebook. RTPark Marketing Manager Sydney Paul moderated the question-and-answer session.
The park was created in 2002 as an economic development organization under Title 17 of the V.I. Code, with the goal of diversifying and strengthening the economy through the technology sector, said Chapman. While it is a partnership between the private sector, the V.I. government and UVI, it is self-funded through client management fees and receives no government money.
“On paper, we were intended to be a comprehensively focused organization that focused on everything from the attraction of new businesses to the acceleration of new businesses to talent development, place-based economic development and real estate development,” said Chapman. “But quite frankly, we didn’t really do those things between 2002 and 2018.”
That changed in 2018, when Chapman came on board, drawn to the Virgin Islands by his family roots in the Caribbean, namely Barbados, Trinidad and Panama, and after a career in economic revitalization in larger markets in the U.S. “for more years than I care to recall,” he said, describing his work as “a labor of love.”
“I do think my grandparents are smiling down on me because this is such a unique and important endeavor for me,” said Chapman.
Chapman started by assembling a “phenomenal, high-performing team,” including Saleem and Paul, and “that really marked the beginning of the RTPark that we know today, which is a comprehensively focused economic development organization that harnesses technology and the tech sector and also sustainable agriculture to create good jobs for Virgin Islanders, and to facilitate investment in the community and all those wonderful things,” said Chapman.
Through the first two cohorts of its Accelerate V.I. program, the park has 68 “traditional” tech sector companies – from biotech and renewable energy to financial technology firms – and has assisted 14 others, said Chapman.
But many more programs have been launched.
“Before I came to the RTPark, I didn’t know what the RTPark did,” said Saleem, who added one of the first things they did in 2018 was to look at the enabling legislation of Title 17. “The part that talks about the RTPark really had a lot more in it than just giving tax incentives,” she said. “It’s really an economic development agency, but the programs are for the people.”
As they delved deeper, they discovered they were supposed to have an incubator program to build new tech and knowledge-based businesses in the Virgin Islands, but while they brought companies from the states to take advantage of the tax incentives, local businesses were largely left out.
“Virgin Islanders cannot get into the park if they have an existing business because one, they don’t make the money, it’s expensive, they can’t do that. So how do you create the type of entrepreneurs that you want to come from the Virgin Islands? I always like to joke and say, we want to create millionaires. How do you get them to get that knowledge?” said Saleem.
Enter Accelerate V.I., which in the past year has hosted two cohorts and had 14 companies come in – 10 of which are homegrown, all with businesses in the tech industry, such as creating tourism and finance apps, said Saleem.
“There is so much creativity here. One of our clients, who is a Virgin Islander, said, ‘I was getting ready to move to Georgia, and then I heard about Accelerate V.I.’ And he said, ‘Maybe I ought to stay,’” said Saleem. He became part of the cohort, has launched a website and is preparing to launch an app on how to become financially aware, she said.
“We’ve had a lot of success with Accelerate V.I. We hope to create more Virgin Islands entrepreneurs in the tech space,” said Saleem.
Aiming at an even younger audience, the park also launched V.I. STEM Kids, to get children involved in the tech sector from a young age. In partnership with the Caribbean Boys and Girls Club, the program initially planned to enroll 60 students, but the number was reduced to 30 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each student received a Chromebook and learned how to code and create apps.
“It was wonderful. And the fact that they were able to take those Chromebooks home and keep them was something we were really excited about,” said Saleem.
However, the program dearest to her heart as a mother is the newly launched VISTA+ platform that allows USVI companies looking for tech or STEM talent to post job vacancies in one central location, with the aim of bringing Virgin Islanders back home, said Saleem.
Job seeking candidates must be U.S. citizens who have lived in the USVI for at least one year, have attended school in the territory for six years, graduated from a local high school or UVI and are registered to vote in the V.I. Any native Virgin Islander is eligible, defined by VISTA+ as any person born in the USVI or who has a parent born in the Virgin Islands or is a native Virgin Islander. Spouses of Virgin Islanders are also eligible, as it could be an incentive to move the family back to the territory.
“That is the most important program we do at the RTPark,” said Saleem. “It’s our way of bringing our children back home.”
“For us, when we think about economic development, it’s three-fold,” said Paul. “There’s the business attraction portion, there is the entrepreneurship portion and then there’s the workforce development portion. All of those things have to be thought about together in the work that we do to make sure that we’re doing it successfully.”
The Tech Village – focused on developing sustainable agriculture – fulfills a huge workforce development portion, said Paul, and has evolved over the past year in partnership with local organizations such as the Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition.
“It’s ultimately about food system resilience and independence, and harnessing the opportunities that we see to bring new sustainable agriculture companies to the territory and help existing sustainable agriculture companies grow by providing a space, literally a physical space, and infrastructure for them to grow,” said Chapman.
“Who knew that the RTPark was supposed to do agriculture? Nobody ever talked about it. But in Title 17 we are supposed to look at new and diverse ways to do agriculture,” said Saleem.
In fact, Chapman sees the agriculture component as one of the most visionary pieces of Title 17 enabling legislation that created the park. “It recognized that technology is a driver of economic development, but also the other critical thing that you find in the statute, which is more Virgin Islands-centric, is that recognition of the potential to harness agriculture, particularly sustainable agriculture, to help strengthen and diversify the economy,” said Chapman.
To be clear, sustainable agriculture is about commercial-scale growth that can feed the entire community, promote job creation and long-term investment, said Chapman, in contrast to subsistence farming.
“The reason for the focus on sustainable development goes to that founding statute. But it is also a very important and legitimate focus for an organization like ours that is trying to diversify the economy,” said Chapman.
“Thinking about agriculture as an economic development driver, creating jobs, that is a real possibility, especially for a community like ours that holds our land and agriculture so dear to our heart,” said Paul. “I feel like we should be lifting up that community especially with resources and opportunities.”