When members of the VI Carnival Committee (speaking specifically of the St. Thomas Carnival, which does not currently boast enough of a territory-wide inclusion and participation to truly be deemed the Virgin Islands Carnival) gathered at the Senate on Monday to give testimony, the scene was familiar: short testimonies, lack of information, and an overall disappointing showing, according to some lawmakers, with the current state of carnival and the committee’s efforts to bolster what can be a major economic driver for the territory.
“If you’re old enough you know what Virgin Islands Carnival in St. Thomas used to be,” said Senator Myron Jackson, who also chairs the Committee on Culture and Planning in which the hearing was held on Monday. “And if you’re still around and you still participate, you know what it has come to — and that is after 67 years of our festival arts and St. Croix is right behind — what we have presently has slipped, or is behind the circuit,” Mr. Jackson went on as he addressed Carnival Committee officials Halvor Hart and Edgar Baker.
Mr. Jackson is a co-author of a bill that was signed into law by Governor Kenneth Mapp calling for the execution of the territory’s carnival and festivals to be placed under the Department of Tourism — a move that represents a seachange moving forward, as the bill defunds the current carnival and festival committees, and creates a new system through which carnival and festivals in the territory should be achieved beginning with the Crucian Christmas Festival this year.
Another co-author of the measure was Senator Janelle Sarauw, who has also been a relentless advocate for improving the territory’s festival arts. Her chiding of Carnival Committee officials on Monday, pointed as ever, was also familiar, as the lawmaker assailed the same individuals last year.[The Virgin Islands Carnival Committee’s] testimony looks like an inter-office memorandum,” Ms. Sarauw charged. “Carnival is coming up and I was looking for a detailed report with where we are with carnival, a major revenue generating stream, and a page and a half is unacceptable… I was hoping that you came with pages of your strategic plan [on] how you plan to increase revenue, how was your discussion with the Hotel and Tourism Association, [and] how many rooms you want to fill.
“Have you worked with the Department of Tourism on establishing a package? Have you sat with the airlines? Have you sat with Seaborne? Have you sat with the ferry companies? Have you sat with other islands on how you market carnival? Zilch. Zero. None of that happened. And I hate to be adversarial but this is something serious. You can’t even quantify how much money you make and I was looking for that. I came prepared looking for the information and it’s not there.
“And we worked hard to establish a Division of Festivals, we took blows for it… we finally made change, and if this government — Change Course Now, Change Can’t Wait — plans to put the same players in the Division of Festivals, that’s spitting in the face of the people who believe in change, who wanted change, and that’s what’s happening.”
While Ms. Sarauw and Mr. Jackson — two advocates of the new law — aimed to bolster the legislation that they helped forge by exposing the current committee’s unpreparedness to lead the territory’s festival arts, not all lawmakers were in favor of the fast-moving change. Some favored the wisdom in a slower transition by allowing current Carnival Committee leaders to be at the helm of the Division of Festival Arts under the Department of Tourism.
Senator Steven D. Payne asked D.O.T. Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Watley whether officials at the department were considering such. Ms. Watley said the new positions would be open to all qualified individuals.
Senator Javan James also sought a more gradual change, his argument being that the current committee heads have been in the business for decades with experience needed to execute such a massive undertaking as carnival.
“My biggest fear is us reinventing the wheel,” Mr. James said. “I want us to improve the wheel, so we need to have those discussions because it has been working all these years. The goal is just to make it better and Act No. 8153 was just to provide more accountability and transparency.”
The government appropriation for St. Thomas Carnival activities is $545,000, though the Carnival Committee is expected to spend $900,000 to $1 million, with the remaining revenue coming from sponsorships and other avenues. To make a point, Mr. Jackson said that while the government’s physical cash contribution was half a million dollars, the G.V.I. spends at least $1.5 million through other services, including law enforcement, use of the territory’s facilities, and the variety of government departments and agencies involved in the successful execution of carnival.
Ready or not, the new law is here and brings with it major changes.
Asked by Mr. James what he thought brought about the law removing the territory’s carnival and festivals from the committees and placing them under the Dept. of Tourism, Mr. Hart said, “I guess we got comfortable in doing things in such a way that we didn’t improve as we [went] along fast enough. And comfortability, so to speak, so I guess that’s what brought on Act No. 8153.”