DeJongh discusses V.I. economy with St. Croix Chamber of Commerce


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ST. CROIX - Gov. John deJongh Jr. on Thursday addressed the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce at its annual meeting, providing an update on the state of the territory and what he sees as the progress made in recent years, as well as the challenges that still need to be addressed.

The breakfast speech before the St. Croix Chamber in February has become an annual tradition, with the governor typically finding a friendly, supportive crowd.

DeJongh highlighted many of the points he already made in his State of the Territory Address and expounded on some of them.

"The governor talked about the foundation that has been laid throughout his term in office to spur economic growth on St. Croix," Mark Eckard, chairman of the board for the St. Croix Chamber told The Daily News.

Among the topics the governor spoke about was HOVENSA.

DeJongh noted that Lazard, the investment bankers hired by HOVENSA, have been pushing the sale of the shuttered refinery nationally and internationally.

Interest has been generated, according to the governor.

"There's tremendous interest with respect to looking at HOVENSA, looking at the potential of the facility, looking at the storage and looking at what they have there," deJongh said during the speech.

He said he is expecting a short list of parties interested in purchasing the refinery to emerge soon.

"We are confident that within a short time, a relatively short time, the interests will be crystallized and the list will be shortened to those who are looking to be able to invest in that facility," deJongh said.

He also spoke of a number of different achievements, including completing the government's Fiscal Year 2012 financial statements, and he spoke broadly about actions his administration has taken during his tenure.

The governor also talked about challenges, including an anticipated $70 million budget shortfall that the government will have to address before the end of the current fiscal year.

"The senators are meeting today with my financial team, some of them, to discuss the steps forward," he said.

That meeting was not open to the public.

However, the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to have a public meeting to discuss the territory's fiscal state with the governor's financial team testifying on Tuesday.

DeJongh said he plans to reach out to Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone 10 days after Tuesday's meeting and suggest that the senators and the governor meet to discuss "next steps."

He said he is of the "firm opinion" that the local government cannot reduce staff or programs any further.

"We can no longer cut," he said, suggesting that officials would have to find an alternative way to balance the budget.

"There has to be much more innovative ways that we begin to look at the challenges that confront us over the next year and into the future as we set a foundation," he said.

There was a short question-answer session after the speech. Eckard said that topics raised in the questions included health care and the lack of insurance availability for individuals in the territory, a proposed trans-shipment facility on the south shore, the bike path and the homeless.

In his own speech to the members, Eckard said he talked about the need to revitalize industry on the island's south shore.

His speech touched on the effect that the loss of HOVENSA's oil refining operations had on the territory's gross domestic product, using numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis that looked at the effect the shutdown had on the economy, he said.

"Although tourism and cruise ships are a vitally important part of our economy, I think we miss the boat when we don't acknowledge that it was industry on the south shore of St. Croix that fueled the economy for years," he said.

Eckard pushed for revitalizing the south shore with industries that can fuel the local economy once again, he said.

- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email jblackburn@dailynews.vi.

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