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VI Slice Program Faces Scrutiny Over Six Loans Since Inception, EDA Chief Defends Performance

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Since its inception in May 2023, the VI Slice program has seen only eight transactions approved, as disclosed by Economic Development Authority (EDA) CEO Wayne Biggs Jr. during a recent Senate hearing. The data has left legislators questioning the program’s efficacy.

The hearing, conducted by the Senate Committee on Housing, Transportation and Telecommunications, included representatives from the EDA and the VI Housing Finance Authority, aimed to shed light on the program’s progress.

With nearly $615,000 in gap financing distributed through eight transactions, six loans have been fully closed while the remaining two are expected to close by this month’s end. The majority of these transactions were facilitated through Capital Mortgage Texas, with the rest being managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Urban Renewal and First Bank.

This modest outcome did little to assuage the concerns of the lawmakers, with Senator Dwayne DeGraff expressing skepticism over the program’s effectiveness. However, Mr. Biggs defended the program, citing the eight families who received an average of $76,000 each, now securing a home through this initiative.

One of the major hurdles identified during the hearing was the challenge in getting a substantial number of applicants to the qualification stage. A testimony revealed that 70% of the 64 households that reached out to one bank regarding the program didn’t complete the requisite residential loan application, with only two advancing to the underwriting process.

Senator Marvin Blyden urged the involved agencies to ramp up their efforts, stressing the need for more creative and expansive outreach. In response, Freida Webster, VIHFA director of homeownership, mentioned their ongoing two-hour online sessions held weekly to educate potential homeowners on various essential topics.

On his part, Mr. Biggs disclosed the EDA’s plan to intensify marketing strategies. The outlined plans include town hall meetings, radio and newspaper ads, social media campaigns, webinars, and community outreach involving local schools to foster better participation.

In a bid to expand the pool of lenders beyond the existing five institutions, Mr. Biggs shared the EDA’s ongoing recruitment of additional lenders to the VI Slice program. About forty introductory letters are to be sent to licensed lenders within the territory, as per the list compiled from the Division of Banking and Insurance directory. Senator Milton Potter, however, questioned if this approach was robust enough, suggesting a more engaged dialogue with lending institutions to better harness the program’s potential.

Senator Diane Capeheart and others expressed concerns over bureaucratic hurdles, while Mr. Biggs contended that any red tape primarily resided with the banks’ mortgage acquisition process.

Concerns were also raised regarding Banco Popular’s delayed participation as a lending institution within the program. Mr. Biggs attributed the delay to ongoing reviews of a memorandum of understanding between Banco Popular and the EDA, expressing optimism for a resolution by the week’s end.

When probed about the program’s success metrics, Mr. Biggs acknowledged the lofty goal of having 95% of applications approved by primary lenders as a significant benchmark, albeit a challenging one. He stressed that not all applicants would meet the qualification criteria, drawing an analogy to a Senate race with limited spots available for numerous contenders.

Senator Novelle Francis emphasized the need for better collaboration among the agencies overseeing VI Slice, seeking insights from Dr. Stephanie Berry, VIHFA chief operating officer, on strategies to improve the program’s impact.

Dr. Berry reiterated the triad of challenges they face: Workforce, Contractors, and Education. She explained that the effectiveness of any plans to construct new homes in the territory hinges on the availability of contractors, which currently is a limiting factor due to their existing obligations and workforce constraints.

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SBA Launches T.H.R.I.V.E. Training Program for Small Business Owners in 2024

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The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has unveiled the T.H.R.I.V.E. (Train, Hope, Rise, Innovate, Venture, Elevate) training program, set to begin in 2024. This initiative, evolving from the previous Emerging Leaders program, is tailored to bolster the expansion and longevity of small businesses throughout the United States, including those in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Starting on June 18 and concluding on December 10, 2024, T.H.R.I.V.E. offers a blend of online and in-person sessions. The curriculum is designed to enhance leadership skills, strategic financial management, market innovation, and the development of a vibrant company culture. Participants will engage in an interactive format, receiving guidance from experts and creating a comprehensive three-year strategic growth plan.

Isabel Casillas Guzman, the 27th Administrator of the SBA, stressed the importance of the program. “The T.H.R.I.V.E. Emerging Leaders Reimagined initiative arms budding small business leaders with the essential tools and knowledge, providing them access to top economic minds, which is crucial for competing in the global market,” she noted.

To qualify, businesses must have been operational for at least three years, generate minimum annual revenues of $250,000, employ at least one person besides the owner, and the owner must participate throughout the six-month program duration.

Josué E. Rivera, SBA’s district director for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, emphasized the training’s collaborative approach. “Our innovative cohort model not only fosters a network of support but also connects participants with leading figures in the industry and government. This approach is instrumental in cultivating business growth and sustainable practices,” Rivera said.

Wayne Huddleston, SBA senior area manager for the U.S. Virgin Islands, highlighted the program’s local impact. “For small business owners in the U.S. Virgin Islands, this program offers crucial tools and knowledge to help them diversify their revenue streams and expand their operations. I urge interested entrepreneurs to apply before the April 28 deadline, as space is limited,” he urged.

Entrepreneurs from the U.S. Virgin Islands interested in the 2024 T.H.R.I.V.E. cohort can obtain more information and apply by visiting the SBA’s official website or by contacting the SBA’s St. Croix office at 340-473-7945. Applications are open until April 28, 2024.

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Leadership Transition at RTPark as CEO Peter Chapman Announces Departure

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The Research and Technology Park (RTPark) is set for a new chapter in leadership as CEO Peter H. Chapman has announced he will be stepping down after a dynamic and impactful six years at the helm. Chapman, credited with steering RTPark through a period marked by strategic innovations and robust growth, will see his contract conclude without renewal. His future endeavors will concentrate on his venture, Urban Policy Innovations (UPI), an economic development and real estate advisory firm, as revealed in a recent RTPark press release.

Chapman’s era at RTPark is distinguished by remarkable financial achievements and the enhancement of the community’s socio-economic landscape in the Virgin Islands. Under his guidance, RTPark was distinguished with the 2020 Economic Development Organization of the Year award by the International Economic Development Council. The park’s business portfolio witnessed a substantial 275% growth, while its revenues soared by over 300%, obliterating a $4 million debt accumulated before Chapman’s leadership in 2018. Notably, RTPark’s support for the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) saw a dramatic increase, contributing $3 million in 2023—a more than 300% rise since 2018, cumulating to approximately $14 million in support since RTPark’s inception.

Reflecting on his tenure, Chapman expressed his dedication to the economic diversification efforts of the RTPark and the broader Virgin Islands community. “Leading the RTPark has been a privilege, and I am thankful for the trust and opportunity granted by the RTPark Board of Directors and the organization’s visionary founders,” he remarked.

Chapman attributed the success of RTPark to a vigorous economic development strategy that propelled tech sector growth and diversified revenue streams. This approach included enticing new enterprises, nurturing startups, developing the workforce, facilitating access to capital, and enhancing infrastructure. He also acknowledged the crucial role of RTPark-affiliated companies in fueling the organization’s expansion and its significant investments in UVI.

As Chapman prepares for his departure, he remains devoted to a smooth transition and the continued prosperity of RTPark’s projects. He hinted at his potential involvement in special economic development projects within the Virgin Islands post-RTPark, expressing gratitude for the opportunity to serve and his anticipation for RTPark’s future trajectory.

“The collective achievements during my tenure are a reflection of the collaborative effort and commitment of our team, partners, and the community. I am proud of our accomplishments and eager to witness RTPark’s ongoing success,” Chapman concluded.

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Launch of GERS Personal Loan Program: A New Opportunity for Government Employees

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The Government Employees’ Retirement System (GERS) has officially announced the opening for expressions of interest in its newly relaunched personal loan program, sparking excitement among its members. Following a resolution in January by the GERS Board of Trustees, $20 million has been earmarked to fuel this initiative, aimed at providing financial assistance to its members. This revival splits the allocated funds equally between the St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John administrative districts.

Eligibility for this financial opportunity is extended to active members who have contributed for a minimum of two years. They can apply for loans up to $10,000, repayable over a span of five years or before the borrower reaches the age of 70, at an interest rate of 8%.

Members interested in availing themselves of this opportunity are encouraged to express their interest through an online loan interest form or by personally visiting GERS offices. The deadline for submission is set for April 18, before noon. An application fee of $50 is required as part of the process, as stated by the agency.

Following the initial expression of interest, the pre-qualification stage will commence. Successful candidates will then be notified to arrange interview appointments, proceeding in the sequence in which their expressions of interest were received. This structured approach ensures a transparent and orderly process, allowing members to step closer to financial empowerment through the GERS personal loan program.

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