Representatives from the territory’s banks said Wednesday that they’re doing brisk business during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the Paycheck Protection Plan and other federal loan programs, as well as a strong real estate market.
Acting Gov. Tregenza Roach, who serves as Chairman of the V.I. Banking Board, heard reports from Banco Popular, Bank of St. Croix, FirstBank, Merchants Commercial Bank, Oriental Bank, and the V.I. Economic Development Bank. Acting Finance Commissioner and ex officio banking board member Clarina Modeste-Elliott also attended the meeting, which was held via videoconference, as well as St. Croix board members are Rosalie Javois and Richard Grant. The St. Thomas and St. John board seats are both currently vacant.
Merchant’s Commercial Bank President James Crites gave a particularly positive report on his bank’s financial health, and said the bank has had its best year since opening in 2006.
“I must admit that despite the pandemic it’s been a very good year for us, and the fact that the real estate industry in the Virgin Islands is really doing quite well from our perspective, it is creating additional business for us,” Crites said.
“We’re just happy to hear that you had such a great year, your best year since 2006, really says a lot despite the pandemic,” Roach said.
The Economic Development Bank, which is primarily funded by local government appropriations, according to CEO Wayne Biggs Jr., is also administering loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Plan. To date, the EDB has granted 69 borrowers a total of $549,800 in PPP loans averaging $7,910 per borrower, Biggs said.
The total dollar amount of loans approved so far this quarter has already surpassed all of the loans granted in 2020, Biggs said, and there are more in the pipeline.
“We’ve seen requests for our services across the EDA increase, so I think particularly in the small business community as people have transitioned to business owners themselves, we’ve gotten more requests for loans, our delinquency rate is fairly low,” and there isn’t a backlog in applications waiting to be processed, Biggs said.
While “at some point it may plateau out,” Biggs said he’s surprised by the strength of the government’s tax collections even without cruise ship passengers shopping on Main Street in St. Thomas, “so you have to have an optimistic view of the way the economy is continuing to grow.”
FirstBank branch closings
One bank that has struggled in some areas is FirstBank, and Senior Vice President for the USVI Region, Valdamier Collens — who served as V.I. Finance Commissioner under former Gov. Kenneth Mapp — said the bank has closed three branches in the territory and fired 15 underperforming employees.
“Those employees for many reasons were not complying with the rules and regulations of the bank, so those were fully terminations,” and not layoffs, Collens said. No severance packages were offered, “not when rules and regulations are not met.”
Another 27 employees voluntarily retired or resigned from FirstBank, Collens said.
The bank addressed Board concerns about employee retention and customer service by assuring Board members that no employee would lose their position as a result of the branch closures, and that the three branches — East End Plaza and Crown Bay on St. Thomas, and King Street on St. Croix — had already been closed for varying periods of seven to eleven months throughout the course of the pandemic.
Customers of these locations will be transferred to neighboring FirstBank locations upon the official closure of the three branches. Tentative dates of closure are May 28 for the Crown Bay Branch and June 25 for the East End Plaza and King Street Branches.
Crown Bay Branch customers will be transferred to the Waterfront Branch, East End Plaza customers will be transferred to the FirstBank Plaza Branch in Tutu, and King Street Branch customers will be transferred to the Orange Grove Branch. The Bank is required to notify customers of this change by February 26.