Thursday, February 2, 2012

Troubled Times

I wrote last month about the closure of Hovensa, the St. Croix refinery that was by far (and is for another couple of weeks) the largest private employer in the territory.

I don't want to pretend that a huge oil refinery (one of the biggest in North America) is a great neighbor on a small, tropical island. But for more than 40 years it has been the mainstays – let me say that again with emphasis, THE mainstay – of the local economy.

We'll be visiting this from time to time for a while, because this is a huge event for this island.

Last month the unemployment rate in the U.S. Virgin Islands was 8.5 percent – 7.7 percent on St Thomas/St. John, and 9.6 on St. Croix. That's high. But the loss of all those refinery jobs will push the overall jobless rate in the territory to 12.5 percent and on St. Croix it will climb to 18.7 percent, according to the territory's Department of Labor. And there's no reason to think it'll get better any time soon. There simply are no other jobs on the island and no industries here that might create even a fraction of those jobs, not any time soon.

This came on top of a fiscal crisis for the territory government which is causing pretty heavy layoffs of public employees. And the Senate lacks the political will to do the things it needs to do to resolve the problem. They'd be unpopular, and politicians don't intentionally run around doing unpopular things in an election year. In fact, I covered a Senate session where the whole daylong discussion was Hovensa, and they steadfastly refused to face reality all day.

So the Baurs now have a front row seat at economic chaos. We're okay, at least for now, Everything is going to get more expensive, except rum, and we're losing friends fast. People who work at the refinery have a set of skills that kind find them work anywhere – except here. To work, they've gotta go to where the oil jobs are, and that's someplace else. One family we were getting to know saw the handwriting on the wall early and moved to Panama right after Christmas, before the Hovensa announcement. Another family we know is moving to Texas this summer – although they've said they're taking us with them. Not that we're ever moving to Texas, but their son thinks the Baurs are the funniest people he's ever met, and we've turned him on to Dr. Who. Another family is moving to Oklahoma, and there's also talk of Saudi Arabia and Qatar among our friends and acquaintances. Some friends of Millie's just moved to Florida. They werenit a Hovensa family, but they don't like what they see coming down the road.

And it's all going to get worse before it gets any better. The people who are leaving have skills, education. That just exacerbates the brain drain that has always been a problem on the island.

For us the biggest concern is the school. One of the perks of moving to the territory to work for the company was Hovensa paid private school tuition for the kids. Good Hope will still be there next year, the administration assured everyone, but everyone knows it won't be the same. And Good Hope isn't the only private school facing that problem. All of them – Country Day, Kingshill, A to Z Academy – have some hard decisions to make, and some of them won't survive. I just don't see how they can.

That's going to mean more people without jobs or leaving the island. We're looking at a long stretch of difficult times.

No comments: