March 30, 2003 – Leaders of 25 community and business organizations believed to represent some 15,000 St. Croix residents showed up at Gertrude's Restaurant on Saturday to discuss ways to alleviate problems besetting their economically foundering and crime-ridden island.
At the end of a day spent discussing problems and hammering out a plan to address some of them, Bill Turner, executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, said, the session yielded a resolution calling for:
– Repeal of legislation allowing video lottery terminals in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
– Creation of a Hotel and Tourism Authority and of an Agricultural Authority.
– Implementation of a pending anti-crime memorandum of understanding with Puerto Rico.
– Increased transparency in government.
In the first part of the meeting, each organization had five minutes to talk about problems viewed as most pressing in the territory. Speaker after speaker, the same topics arose again and again — increasing crime, decreasing tourism, environmental concerns, corruption in the government, inadequate health care and disparity between funding spent in the St. Croix district and that of St. Thomas-St. John.
"We have to take control of our own destiny," the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association's president, Fred Laue, told the group of about 40 people. He said tourists bring in revenue of about $100 million a year to the island, based on 42 percent hotel room occupancy. Other Caribbean islands average 72 percent occupancy, and if St. Croix were on a par, revenues would be that much higher, he said.
"We have 15 people in the Department of Tourism — they outnumber the guests on the island!" Laue said. He said if a semi-autonomous Tourism Authority were in place, the private sector could have much more input in promoting the island.
Turner, speaking on behalf of SEA, pointed out that some of the bacteria such as e-coli and typhus seen as a threat to soldiers in the Middle East in the event of a chemical warfare attack are "flowing in our streets every day."
The island's wastewater and solid-waste crisis is ongoing, he said, and transparency in government contracts for repairs is imperative in ensuring that money is spent properly. He also said the procurement process for government contracts is flawed and must be drastically changed.
Turner pronounced the meeting an "unprecedented success," noting that various types of groups were involved. "What made history is that they didn't fall apart when we got to the planning phase," he said.
He said the groups intend to call a meeting with the St. Croix and at-large senators, the governor and the lieutenant governor. And, he said, they intend to hold press conferences and rallies on an ongoing basis to keep up the momentum and cohesiveness of the coalition.
"The whole point to [Saturday's meeting] is that this is just a start," Turner said. "All we were looking for was some common ground. And on the points where we all agree, we're going to work on those together. That's a big deal."
Julia Renfro, who represented the 125 businesses of the Christiansted Restaurant and Retail Association at the meeting, said afterward that it was "fabulous."
Now, "we want a meeting with the people who are supposed to be representing and helping St. Croix," Renfro said. "People are literally dying because of the crime. The government is in disarray."
Through the coalition forged on Saturday, she said, St. Croix's business and community organizations are speaking to the powers that be with one voice. "We can't take it any more," she said. "This is the worst time that any of us have ever seen on this island. We just want our government to represent us like they're supposed to."
Publisher's note : Like the St. Croix Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.