About a dozen construction workers kept busy pouring concrete atop the three-storey building overlooking Road Harbour under the Monday afternoon sun. Their project, a 44-room expansion of Maria’s by the Sea, is estimated to cost $5 million, according to the project’s Dec. 13, 2006 application to the Planning Authority.

In 2006, construction activity constituted 5.41 percent of the territory’s Gross Domestic Product, according to the Development Planning Unit. By 2010, that number had shrunk to an estimated 4.64 percent.

Like the slowdown in the tourism and financial services sectors of the Virgin Islands economy, construction activity has been hit hard by the global recession, according to several candidates vying for a legislative seat in the Nov. 7 election.

“We have a tremendous problem where construction is dead. We don’t have enough licences or permits being issued for construction,” said Allen Wheatley, a construction company owner who is contesting the Seventh District seat under his Party of the People. Speaking at a Sept. 30 candidate forum at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College, Mr. Wheatley, who is currently his party’s only candidate, said the sector could use some help.

“If the construction [activity] was to move a good 50 percent, it would alleviate a lot of our existing problems in terms of [the economy] right off the bat,” he said.

Vernon Malone (R-at large), a Virgin Islands Party representative campaigning for re-election, is of a similar opinion. Speaking at a VIP campaign rally Saturday, he said that he’s heard from many people in the construction, hospitality and retail industries who are jobless or underemployed.

“I am of the view that the most important thing that we can seek to do now is seek to grow the economy,” he said.


Many candidates and residents share that view. In an unscientific online survey conducted by this newspaper this year, 122 of 167 respondents ranked the economy one of the top five issues facing the territory.

Neil Smith, the territory’s financial secretary, said in a September interview that he believes the VI’s next government must re-evaluate its priorities and look to “recharge” the economy.

“We need to look at those existing industries – those two big ones: financial services and tourism – and see what can be done to recharge them. And then we need to look at something else. We need to diversify, obviously,” he said.

Mr. Smith added that he would like to see ideas discussed through a public consultation process before government embarks on any diversification plan.

At the HLSCC candidate forum, an event sponsored by the BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association, Opposition Leader Dr. Orlando Smith said a healthy economy is crucial because it supports everything else, including government spending on health care, and provides for a “good standard of living.”

“In order to do this we have to concentrate on fixing the economy of this country so we can provide the services that we want to provide,” said Dr. Smith, the leader of the National Democratic Party.

Though candidates agree the recession has hit the territory hard, the parties have different interpretations as to how much responsibility the VIP holds for the current economic situation, after holding power since 2007.

“Our current situation was inevitable, but not for our stewardship, it would have been worse that what it is,” Deputy Premier Dancia Penn said at the forum.

But Natalio Wheatley, an at-large candidate with the People’s Patriotic Alliance, said moments later that he sees a danger in blaming the VI economy’s current condition solely on the global recession.

“It’s important for us not to rest on our laurels in terms of just saying that and there’s nothing we can do about it,” he said.

Development plans

Some of the proposed solutions for economic development are local, requiring district-specific capital investment. The NDP incumbent Dr. Kedrick Pickering (R-D7) told his constituents at his campaign launch that he hopes to increase the area’s economic potential with the Fat Hogs Bay Harbour development project. At another launch across Tortola, VIP candidate Julian Fraser (R-D3) told his supporters that the Sea Cows Bay Harbour project that he has promised his constituents will boost commercial and tourist activity.

Several at-large candidates, however, focused their economic plans on territory-wide solutions to enhance “business friendliness” and support small businesses.

Natalio Wheatley, of the PPA, said the National Bank of the Virgin Islands can do more to provide capital to small business owners. Dr. Smith said a small business bureau envisioned by his government could help would-be entrepreneurs with financing and advice.

Though the international magazine FDIntelligence ranked the territory as the second best country or territory in the region for its human resources, more needs to be done to train and prepare VIslanders for jobs in the modern economy, many candidates said.

“The focus has to be on people and the development of the persons in our society,” Ms. Penn said. “We have to have stronger and better training in all the relevant areas for our people. We have to have apprenticeships, … and the formal education of our people has to be more focused and more talented.”

Training and targeted education about the financial services sector, Dr. Smith said, is needed at a younger age to prepare students to take up roles in those careers.

Though several party representatives have spoken publicly about the need for a strong financial services industry, most have avoided announcing specific policies they would implement to change the sector. Dr. Smith said he’d like to see more diversification away from company incorporation into the funds and captive insurance markets.

Allen Wheatley, of the POP, said that if elected, he would focus his energies on other sectors.

“The scenario with the financial services is that in my opinion it’s a fairly well balanced industry with a pretty good strategy,” he said, adding, “They continue to develop themselves as they go along.”


Several candidates also said the territory’s fishing and agricultural industries can form a more important part of the economy.

Lorie Rymer, an independent candidate for the Ninth District, said that in his opinion, agriculture has been “dying” since the 1960s, especially on Virgin Gorda as farmlands were turned over for use as resorts or national parks.

Khoy Smith, an at-large candidate with the PPA and president of the group Farmers on the Move, said the government should create a better agricultural policy with grants to assist farmers and special zoning areas for agriculture. A shift to domestic food production could boost farmers and the economy as a whole, he said.

“If you can buy groceries in your house as a country, you don’t have to depend so much on bringing in that fish. You can purchase that fish among yourselves, then that also stabilises the economy,” he said.

But to do that, it’s important to protect the territory’s waters, the candidate said.

“If we say we’re gonna go 300 miles out, and that’s our zone for fishing, then we then have to protect that zone, so folks cannot come in with their trawlers and deplete our fishing ground. So we would have to ensure a radius within border control,” he said.  

Whatever form diversification takes, a move away from the economy’s two pillars could increase financial stability as well as provide opportunities for VIslanders, according to Neil Smith, the financial secretary.

“It’s a simple argument: The more diversified you are, the less vulnerable you are to shocks in any one sector. That has to be done. I think we have spoken about it a lot, but we haven’t really thought seriously about those things,” Mr. Smith said.

He added that he would like to see ideas discussed through a public consultation process before government embarks on any diversification plan.