- Written by CONOR KING DEVITT
- Published: 29 December 2017
In numerous speeches, announcements and interviews after Hurricane Irma, Premier Dr. Orlando Smith often touted government’s plans for local businesses.
“We have designed four special programmes to assist small and medium enterprises,” Dr. Smith (R-at large) said during a press conference last month. “We will support them with power generation, grants of up to $10,000, loan guarantees up to $25,000, and [a] customer service and business hub to temporarily conduct some of their business affairs.”
BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association officials, however, say much of the premier’s words have been merely that — lip service, with little follow-through.
“At the end of the day, if we’re going to be ‘open for business,’ if we’re going to be rebuilding — just like the government needs assistance — the business community needs some level of assistance and support,” said Chaunci Cline, the BVICCHA vice president of hospitality.
Some businesses did get generators, though neither Ms. Cline nor Shaina Smith, the BVICCHA vice president of business, has heard of one of their organisation’s 250 members receiving any loans or grants.
And they say other measures designed to assist the private sector, like the import duty exemptions, have been hamstrung by limited consultation with the business community.
Both women criticised government’s lack of engagement with local businesses during the recovery. The BVICCHA, they said, has not been looped in to the rebuilding strategy, despite representing companies across the territory.
“We have not been engaged at all as it relates to the recovery process,” Ms. Cline said, adding, “As the voice of the business community, if we are true stakeholders in the process in building a thriving economy, then why ask for consultation if the desire is to move forward with your own agenda anyway?”
Karia Christopher, the director of trade, did not respond to requests for comment regarding the BVICCHA’s concerns.
Broderick Penn, the chairman of the Disaster Recovery Coordinating Committee, said government will be “updating the public on the progress of the different programmes and initiatives that has been instituted to assist businesses with building stronger, smarter, greener, better following the August flood and the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.” He did not say when, however.
No seat at the table
Ms. Smith also complained that no BVICCHA official was invited to be a part of the DRCC, something the organisation was writing to the Premier’s Office about.
BVICCHA members also have not been privy to the recovery plan besides reviewing an early framework of it, she added. Government has kept the plan behind closed doors and Dr. Smith has not said when the document will be distributed to the public.
Mr. Penn, however, told the Beacon yesterday that a draft of the recovery plan will be available for public input in January.
“Good governance includes transparency and includes participation of those that you govern,” said Ms. Smith, an engineer who works as the managing director of her firm Smith & Associates. “So nonprofit organisations such as ourselves — we have a very key role to play in terms of accountability.”
Additionally, neither Ms. Smith nor Ms. Cline, the general manager at Village Cay, is sure how much information government officials actually collected from the business community when calculating the territory’s overall initial loss assessment.
In the three and a half months following Irma, Dr. Smith (R-at large) and other government officials have repeatedly said initial estimates indicate the storm caused $3.6 billion worth of damage to the territory.
However, they provided the public with few details regarding what that number entails or how it was derived.
In an interview with the Beacon last month, Greg Adams, the chief planner for the Town and Country Planning Department, offered some clarification.
“We identified like 12 sectors of the BVI economy,” Mr. Adams said. “And those numbers were pulled from all of those sectors — from agriculture, fisheries, from the tourism sector, from financial services, you name it. We were talking to … the leaders of those industries to get a sense of what level of damage was sustained to compile that number.”
Mses. Cline and Smith noted that a basic survey from government was distributed to BVICCHA members in the days after the storm, though what results that garnered is uncertain. Given the telecommunication difficulties at the time, they said they weren’t sure how many business owners were able to view and complete the questionnaire.
“We’ve been questioning how [Dr. Smith] came up with [the $3.6 billion figure],” Ms. Cline said.
In the three months since the storm, there has also been no subsequent effort to work with the organisation to calculate a more precise damage estimate, Ms. Smith added.
More planning needed
The BVICCHA officials stressed the need for the Ministry of Finance to conduct more long-term economic planning regarding everything from unemployment issues to business security to economic analysis.
Ms. Cline pointed to the recent wave of layoffs at tourism mainstays like Peter Island Resort & Spa and The Moorings.
“We have a workforce development crisis from a national standpoint in the territory,” she said. “Someone has to say, ‘Look, we’re going to create a system where we’ve got all of these people being laid off but there may be a need in the marketplace. How do we match the need to the marketplace?’ That’s strategy.”
Both BVICCHA officials pointed to the link between unemployment and criminal activity and expressed concern that crime rates would rise without some sort of unemployment plan.
After the widespread looting following Hurricane Irma, Ms. Smith said, government should also work to provide business owners with a security plan in case of another natural disaster.
More detailed quarterly economic reports would also help increase confidence in the market, she added.
Tariffs and insurance
Dr. Smith has also touted import duty exemptions as a measure designed to kickstart businesses in the wake of the storm.
Those exemptions, however, are set to expire on Dec. 31, and Mses. Smith and Cline say insurance payment delays and reduced port capabilities have prevented most local companies from taking advantage of the tariff waivers.
“It’s very disheartening for us as the business community to be able to meet a Dec. 31st deadline for the duty exemptions when insurance companies have literally held us hostage,” Ms. Cline explained.
The Village Cay general manager referred to the current insurance situation as a “crisis” and called on the Financial Services Commission to demand that insurance companies release funds in a reasonable amount of time.
Dr. Smith has said some of the import duty exemptions may be extended, though he has not elaborated on which items or for how long. He could not be reached for comment for further details.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 21, 2017 edition.