One of the first things I noticed about St. Thomas -- beyond its spectacular physical beauty -- was the peculiarity of the local economy. No matter what day of the week it is, if there is at least one cruise ship in the harbor, every shop on the island will be open and bustling. But on no-ship days the commercial areas around the island feel like little ghost towns with shuttered shops and empty sidewalks. Aside from service providers like doctors, lawyers and accountants, and the local government, the economy here is almost entirely dependent on the tourist industry.
It was also obvious that almost nothing is made here. There are a few local artists and artisans who sell their wares through a handful of gift shops, or at the occasional farmer's market, but there is no manufacturing sector. Everything from clothing and food to electronics and auto parts are imported. Even the majority of the jewelery and gift shop items are Chinese imports.
So when I came up with the concept for Nayad SwimGym, one of the first things that inspired me was the thought of developing an actual production facility right here on the island. I like the idea of creating jobs for local people who have been suffering through the recession right alongside their mainland counterparts and the thought of exporting a finished product, amid countless imports, was also appealing.
Of course there are challenges. The cost of labor is high, which makes it difficult to compete with apparel manufacturers in other parts of the world. And because St. Thomas is not exactly a supply hub, all materials have to be imported at considerable expense, which cuts even deeper into our bottom line.
Still, manufacturing in the Virgin Islands is an achievable goal. Yes, our products will be a little pricey. But look at the price we Americans have already paid for exporting so much of our manufacturing overseas! The economy is stagnating, unemployment rates are up and we have allowed ourselves to become dependent on cheap foreign imports. If we continue along this path, things will only get worse.