April 5, 2006 – Cruise Ship Task Force members and St. Croix residents met Tuesday evening to give comments and suggestions on the content of a new agreement they hope will draw cruise ships back to St. Croix.
The meeting was called by the recently formed nine-member task force charged with negotiating a new agreement between the U.S. Virgin Islands and members of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association. The first pact was signed five years ago by FCCA President Michelle Paige, on behalf of the member cruise lines.
Residents and task force members weighed in on what they perceived were problems related to the previous agreement; offered suggestions for improvements and gave their input of St. Croix's economic and social needs in anticipation of the return of ships to that port.
Al Franklin, president of Our Town Frederiksted, said that the revitalization of the waterfront and the Vincent Mason Pool has improved the appearance of the town, and that other historical buildings are being restored.
"We have not heard anything [from the cruise lines] in response to the millions of dollars spent," Franklin said. "We need to know where we stand in light of our investment."
Franklin said cruise ship bunkering is not enough. "It's uncertain whether passengers would get off the ship," he said.
In November 2005, the Department of Tourism announced Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines would night bunker in Frederiksted after visiting St. Thomas all day. The cost of shipping fuel to St. Thomas and the lower cost of fuel on St. Croix were some of the factors considered in the decision, according to Tourism officials. (See "Finally, Good Economic News for Frederiksted").
Frederiksted realtor and former shipping agent Robert Merwin said the present cruise ship agreement has been a "disaster" for St. Croix. "Please don't renew what you already have – it doesn't work," he implored the task force. "The agreement cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues."
Merwin said his former tenants in Frederiksted – Columbian Emeralds, Little Switzerland and other high-end shops – canceled their leases when the cruise ships stopped calling on St. Croix. He said businesses need at least a three-year commitment from the cruise ship lines to have the confidence to invest in Frederiksted again.
He asked the task force to consider an agreement with specific cruise lines for a definite number of calls per year. "These are the things that are going to count in the negotiations," Merwin said.
Another Frederiksted business owner, Ann E. Abramson, talked about the cleanliness of the island. "Who is cleaning up St. Croix?" she asked.
"I don't buy it that we are not marketing St. Croix," said Cruise Ship Task Force member James O'Bryan. "There is a 15 percent increase in air arrivals. The advertising is winning international awards, so what is it?"
O'Bryan suggested the reasons given by cruise lines for not visiting St. Croix are "not what they are saying."
O'Bryan, who is the administrator for St. Thomas and Water Island, said there are not enough garbage receptacles in the Virgin Islands. He said that when residents drive for miles and can't find a place to throw their garbage, they throw it out the car. He said when there are a lot of receptacles, like at the annual St. Croix Agriculture Fair, both adults and children dispose of their garbage properly.
Task force member Sen. Lorraine Berry mentioned the "branding" of St. Croix, which cruise ship lines cited as an area for improvement. Berry said the improvements at the Salt River, known as the first and only positively documented site associated with Columbus' exploration of the New World, would become an important tour site for cruise ship visitors.
She agreed that improvements made to St. Croix should satisfy the cruise lines.
"We hope that after the dredge is complete there are not more excuses," Berry said.
In March, contractors began dredging the south and north sides of the pier to accommodate larger cruise vessels. (See "Work Under Way on Abramson Pier Dredging").
Berry also said the police force has developed a plan for increased surveillance when cruise ships are in port.
Diane Butler, St. Croix Chamber of Commerce president and task force member, asked testifiers what they think would be the ideal amount of cruise ships per day. Residents replied that two ships per day were the most the island's infrastructure could handle.
Other members of the task force who were present at the meeting include Chairman George E. Goodwin, assistant to the governor for public policy, and Rick Carrington, assistant to Lt. Governor Vargrave Richards.
Absent was Ted Bast, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, and Edward Thomas, president of the West Indian Co.
The meeting that took place at the Legislative Conference Room on St. Croix was the first in a series to gather input from the public on the negotiation of a new agreement.
The second meeting is Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the St. John Legislative Complex. The third meeting will be Thursday at 6 p.m. at the West Indian Company conference room on St. Thomas.
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