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Meet a New Senator: James Weber III


Jan. 16, 2007 — In a breezy button-down shirt and khaki shorts, St. Croix Sen. James Weber III looks like a typical V.I. native. He is approachable, easy to engage in conversation and frequently makes jokes during discussions. But that doesn't mean he doesn't take his new position as chair of the Senate's Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture seriously.
Weber's task over the next two years will be a daunting one. In addition to looking at issues ranging from hotel development to re-cultivating the territory's agriculture industry, he now also has purview over tourism, aquaculture, business, transportation and energy, among other things.
While Weber says that he is waiting for the new administration to select the heads of various government departments and agencies, he already has some clear-cut goals in mind. Among his top priorities: reducing the unemployment rate for St. Croix, helping to build the territory's e-commerce industry and developing new ferry routes between Frederiksted, Christiansted and Charlotte Amalie.
Emphasis will also be placed on developing the local agriculture and aquaculture industries, Weber said during a recent interview. "I'd like to see us take advantage of the one raw material we have in abundance — the sea," he said.
While Weber admitted that his knowledge on cultivating aquaculture activities is limited, he added that the committee will coordinate its efforts with the heads of the departments of Tourism, Agriculture and Planning and Natural Resources.
Economic Development
Over the past few years, much emphasis has been placed on promoting economic-development opportunities for St. Croix, which range from the building of much-discussed hotels and resorts to the rebuilding of the island's stagnant cruise-ship industry.
Weber, who says he will take advantage of the fact that St. Croix is currently in a "transformation process," will soon be adding some new ideas to the mix, including the creation of local shipbuilding, maritime and e-commerce industries.
"E-commerce should be the next big thing — and one of the easiest things as well, because it's already in the pipeline with projects such as the Research and Technology Park, and the fact that St. Croix has the third-largest broadband capability in the Western Hemisphere," Weber says. "And because of its ability to attract recognizable brands to St. Croix, I think the possibility of this is great. Being the chair of this committee, I look forward to being able to be absorbed into the conversation."
With the Economic Development Commission playing an active role in the process, possibly drawing in at least 10 new technical businesses per year, St. Croix's unemployment rate will ultimately decrease, Weber added.
"A one-percent decrease in our unemployment rate equals about 500 people," he explained. "If we can move the unemployment rate down just one point, that means that for every 100 new jobs created, you have something like $200,000 more in earned income circulating — that is if residents are making the government's minimum-wage rate of $20,000 per year. It's a good goal."
Weber also spoke of taking advantage of developments in the local shipping industry, using both local and international talent to facilitate the building of ferry boats and other vessels.
"We can get federal funds for that, create the ferry-building process again down here, bring in shipbuilding talent, and supplement it with a seafarer school so that our ships can be captained by Virgin Islands natives," he said. "The progression in this business is clear, and there is a significant demand for it."
Once a prominent industry in the Virgin Islands, agriculture has progressively dwindled over the years, generally receiving less attention from the government. That's why Weber says that in order to revive local farming practices, the Department of Agriculture has to "put its nose to the grindstone."
"We cannot feed our islands, but we may be able to provide a certain number of crops to our people," Weber says. "And we have to coordinate those efforts with whoever becomes head of the department, making sure that we have a guaranteed continuity of supply."
Weber formerly sold cars for Caribbean Auto Mart, and his background in sales informs his ideas about efforts the territory could undertake to market agriculture, creating a larger demand for locally grown products.
"I once traveled to a location where one of their main crops was sugarcane," he said. "And there were places, like in the airport or at restaurants, where the sugarcane was cut into pieces and used as a kabob, so that you would be able to eat the whole thing. That's what I'm talking about in terms of marketing. And of course, we would have to get a continuity of farmers, so that when one person's crops are finished, we have another individual ready to takeover."
In addition to marketing agriculture, the territory also has to be able to market itself to visitors. And the committee, working alongside the departments of Tourism, Planning and Natural Resources and Agriculture, plans to take part in the process, Weber says.
"We're selling, we're the seller, so we have to satisfy the buyer, and it has to be an equitable partnership," he explained. "We have to keep in mind that the tourists are the end users, but at the same time, we have to remember that we can't give away our islands. The key for my constituency, though, is that St. Croix gets some attention."
Weber suggested that the territory also consider implementing new franchise ferry routes throughout the islands, providing direct transportation between Christiansted, Frederiksted and Charlotte Amalie. "We're handicapped going back and forth between St. Thomas and St. Croix," he explained. "And the cost is almost economically prohibitive — one can easier get to Puerto Rico."
The development of cheaper and more frequent ferry services will benefit both visitors and locals, he added.
"If we can find a way to do this, then we will begin to break down the barriers between islands," Weber said. "We will start to know one another better."
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