Governor John P. deJongh Jr. is facing what some would call a major economic development challenge. He prefers to view it as an opportunity.
DeJongh is working to overcome a widely accepted stereotype: the Virgin Islands as merely a vacation destination. His economic and education initiatives are arming the territory with ammunition it needs to tear down those typecasts, as he balances vital tourism with new business opportunities on the islands.
DeJongh is certainly equipped to lead an economic development drive on the islands, having a blend of corporate and government experience to his credit. Early in his career, DeJongh worked at the Tri-Island Economic Development Council. There, he developed and successfully obtained grant funding for the redevelopment of historic structures. DeJongh later worked for Chase Manhattan Bank before entering public service. He has served in various roles in the Virgin Islands government, helping draft legislation vital to economic development.
Area Development sat down with DeJongh to discuss his plans for taking the Virgin Islands to the next level. His focus is on law enforcement, education and, of course, economic development.
On law enforcement.
"We are reorganizing our police department. We have created district chief positions and we're putting much more emphasis on recruiting police officers. Our law enforcement officers are working to build relationships with neighborhood stakeholders and with the business community, and we are revamping our officer training program. We are also putting a focus on our Department of Justice, making sure we have enough prosecutors to handle cases."
"In the past, much of the authority and responsibility for student learning was centralized in our Commission of Education. Now we are shifting the focus of the commission to state-level issues and giving superintendents more authority over student learning. Therefore, the superintendents have all the authority they need within their respective districts. The objective here is to be more responsive to the environment and parent-teacher associations. Education is our largest department. Our budget is about $180 million of our general fund budget of $700 million. That's a significant percentage.
On economic development.
"We recognize the uniqueness of our three major islands, but we have some challenges. Most folks think of us in terms of tourism, but we have a number of light manufacturing companies on St. Croix. St. Croix has the largest amount of broadband outside of New York. Global Crossing and AT&T are here. We also have a research and development technology park. In addition, we have the third-largest refinery in the Western Hemisphere on St. Croix, as well as one of the largest deepwater ports.
"The port is right next to the St. Croix Renaissance, which provides electrical generation capacity, over 1,000 acres of land for commercial development, and a port. So St. Croix and the Virgin Islands represent both tourism and industry potential. We are working to get people to realize that, with a new incentive program that offers income tax breaks. We have an active Workforce Investment Program that is working with the Department of Labor and our university. We are highly focused on career techniques and training. Our work force is diversifying, with many of our younger students interested in computers and technology.
"We plan to streamline and rationalize our permitting processes. Coastal zone management permits need to reflect the realities of the construction industry and development, without compromising our commitment to environmental protection. We all understand that it is our environment -- our natural beauty and our people -- that form the basis of our fundamentally important tourism industry."