Caneel Can Open Relatively Quickly, and Here’s How…

Caneel Bay as seen from the overlook. September 2018

Caneel Bay as seen from the overlook. September 2018

So as you all know, we’ve been chatting quite a bit about Caneel Bay over the past year. The fact that it remains shuttered with zero work happening is a tad frustrating to say the least. We’ve been doing a lot of fact finding lately – putting on our “real news” reporter hat for a bit – and we realized that there is a key piece that we haven’t elaborated on enough. Caneel can, in fact, open relatively quickly. And here’s how…

First, let’s play catch up for our new readers. Caneel Bay is managed by a company called CBI Acquisition LLC. CBI is a private equity firm located in Connecticut, the home state of yours truly. Its parent company back in 2004, Equis Financial Group, stated it had “business operations in real estate and financial planning,” according to a 2004 press release about the acquisition. It also boasted about having “acquired, participated in, arranged and advised on transactions in excess of US $2.5 billion.” Caneel was one of those transactions.

CBI acquired Caneel Bay in 2004. At the time, Equis Financial Group stated in a release that they looked forward “to preserving the history of Caneel Bay, while investing in the resort’s future.”

When CBI acquired Caneel in 2004, its principles knew that the current RUE (retained use estate) it was operating under was set to expire in 2023. The best way to describe the RUE, in this instance, is that it was a gift of property that came with a strict set of parameters for a certain time period.

When Rock Resorts initially gifted the Caneel property to the National Park Service under the RUE, it never had any intention of having it continue as a RUE agreement past 2023, according to Joe Kessler, president of Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park. He stated that when the RUE ended in 2023, Rock Resort’s intention, at the time, was return the land to the Park. The Park could then decide the best use for the property. For example, it could convert it into staff housing, return it to natural parkland, or continue operating it as a hotel. (Pretty much everyone is in agreement that Caneel should continue to be run as a hotel. That is not the issue here.)

Knowing that the RUE was set to expire in 2023, then Congresswoman Donna M. Christensen introduced a bill in January 2009 asking Congress to allow the Secretary of the Interior to negotiate a non-competitive lease with CBI.

(The Park has three options when operating a hotel in NPS property. It can enter into a concession agreement, a lease or a RUE. NPS has a lot of involvement in the management and oversight of a concession agreement – they set rates, etc., so that isn’t the most attractive agreement for them. A lease has much less involvement from NPS, and is just like a lease you would have when renting a house. You are given a set of rules you must follow. And the RUE is what we mentioned earlier – a temporary gift that comes with a set of parameters.) 

At the time, all involved, including CBI, agreed that a lease agreement was the best way to go. And in 2010, the Bill passed and was signed into law. Public Law 111–261 states the following:

  • The lease cannot exceed 40 years.
  • CBI cannot sell the lease without permission from the Secretary of the Interior.
  • CBI cannot increase the overall size of the resort.
  • CBI cannot increase the number of guest rooms.
  • CBI cannot convert any part of the resort into timeshares.
  • The lease states CBI must “ensure the protection of the natural, cultural, and historic features of the resort and associated property, consistent with the laws and policies applicable to property managed by the National Park Service.”
  • The lease may not be extended or renewed.
  • CBI will pay fair market value rent. (Currently CBI pays no property tax because it is an EDC. It also pays no rent to the Park because it is an in-holding.)

At the time, this was considered a sweetheart deal as it was a non-competitive, 40-year lease. A 40-year lease was almost unheard of for hotels operating within the National Park.

CBI and the National Park Service worked to negotiate the terms of the lease for several years, and have yet to come to an agreement. According to Joe Kessler, those negotiations ended before hurricanes Irma and Maria.

From what we hear, the major sticking points were the amount of involvement the National Park had in CBI’s operations, as well as an issue regarding hazardous waste on the property. Apparently there is an area that contains old batteries, used oil, etc. CBI, again from what we hear, does not think it should be responsible for the cleanup. But it’s sort of like when you adopt a dog. If the dog has fleas, it’s your responsibility to treat them. The same can be said for property. If you assume ownership of a property and it has hazardous waste on it, it should be your responsibility to remove it.

(CBI does not respond to our requests for comment.)

So now enter hurricanes Irma and Maria. Caneel suffered extreme damage as we all know. Rather than resume the lease negations, CBI somehow got Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett to sponsor a new Bill that would extend the RUE.

But why extend the RUE when there is already a lease in place? That is the million dollar question folks.

Plaskett’s Bill, as we previously reported, passed the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands earlier this year. It still needs to pass the House and the Senate AND be signed off on by President Trump before becoming law. Oh and this all needs to be completed before mid-December when the current Congressional Session ends.

The chance of this happening is a mere three percent, according to Skopos Labs, a predictive technology company. In addition, the Bill does not have any cosponsors which further limits its ability to pass.

So then what happens? Well we can wait for the Bill to be reintroduced during the next Congressional Session. That may or may not happen. Or CBI can actually follow the current law and resume lease negotiations. That, my friends, would be the fastest way for Caneel to reopen. That would be the fastest way to get many of your favorite faces back to work at Caneel. That would be the fastest way for many of you to return to your favorite resort. That would be the fastest way to give our economy a nice boost. That, my friends, would be the logical thing to do.

CBI said in a written statement to the Virgin Islands Daily News that it does have the ability to reopen the resort sooner than later even if the Bill fails. They are simply choosing not to.

CBI wrote to the Daily News: “For its part, if CBIA does not get the extension of the RUE, it still has the ability to consider reopening a scaled down hotel operation for the remaining term of the RUE. It could use some of the insurance proceeds to remove debris, clean up the beaches, restore the remaining habitable 32 rooms (or slightly more) and profitably operate a small, mid-priced ($200 to $400 per night) hotel for the 5 years remaining on the RUE.”

Again, CBI is choosing not to.

So, say that CBI does that but then chooses to walk in when the RUE expires in 2023, maybe we could get a company that actually cares about St. John, its people and the National Park to run the resort. Just a thought…

And if you recall, CBI announced earlier this year how they were renting rooms to vacationers at the near-destroyed resort. They’ve since stopped doing that. But that proves they have the ability to reopen if they wanted to. Again, CBI is choosing not to.

Now lastly, let’s talk insurance. We all know CBI had insurance. It has stated publicly that Caneel suffered $100 million in damages. How much insurance did CBI actually have? Despite many requests by a variety of media outlets to disclose that, CBI has refused. So let’s say they only had $60 million in insurance, and that’s a conservative estimate, they would have to recoup $40 million. They’re saying they need to 60-year RUE extension to do so. But don’t you think they would have the ability to recoup that loss with the 40-year lease which was already enacted in Congress? I’m clearly not a financial advisor, but even I can see that something is very wrong if a resort like Caneel doesn’t have the ability to do that.

Something’s fishy here folks.

The fact of the matter is that CBI is purposefully delaying the reopening of Caneel. And in doing so, CBI is purposefully hurting our economy. And that, my friends, is not ok in my book.

23 comments for “Caneel Can Open Relatively Quickly, and Here’s How…

  1. Capt. Morgan
    October 7, 2018 at 9:59 pm

    It sounds like CBI’s conduct may create a cause of action under several legal theories and they probably know that. Perhaps the time has come for the NPS and other affected parties to look into that.

  2. Christy McManus
    October 8, 2018 at 7:59 am

    Thank you for putting in all the time it took to gather this information. My question is, with their lack of concern for St. John, do we want them back? After their behavior following Irma/Maria, firing people by email, I personally think it should go for bid and hopefully someone with a more community and environmental outlook would win the bid.

    Do you know how much they paid the park each year, if anything?

    • News of St. John
      News of St. John
      October 8, 2018 at 8:14 am

      I do not believe that they pay any rent to the Park.

  3. Woody Pool
    October 8, 2018 at 8:59 am

    I may have missed it above but under the current RUE agreement, we’re there stipulations as to how CBI would run the property? Have they and are they doing that? I know about Irma and Maria as many islanders do. We’ve taken the steps to restore our property and I’m fairly certain that CBI has more assets that we do. If they have not, then why aren’t they being forced to abide by the agreement? If they choose not to, then wouldn’t they by in violation of said agreement and the NPS could take it back? Instead of giving them a sweetheart deal, why isn’t Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett lobbing CBI to do the right thing?

  4. Donna
    October 8, 2018 at 9:31 am

    Thank you for putting all of this info together. You are right it is very fishy!

  5. Skip
    October 8, 2018 at 9:58 am

    Laurence Rockefeller is shedding a tear.

  6. george
    October 8, 2018 at 11:43 am

    it looks like CBI has control of Rep.Stacey Plaskett and are betting on the bill for the Rue extension to get them more money than they could by negotiating a lease. so they play that card until it is no longer viable, which could be if the bill fails by December, or they hold on to Stacey Plaskett and hope she can score for them in 2019. they probably have sufficient insurance money to show a profit on the property and can just hold their cards.

    with so many people in the Administration for sale, there is not telling what sweetheart deals CBI could arrange through politicians and Interior Dept political appointees.

    for people who care about St John and Caneel, the best strategy is to stop the Plaskett bill 100% this or any other Congressional session. that would force CBI to take the still very lucrative 40 year lease to make money.

    alternatively, get Public Law 111–261 repealed so that CBI has no leg up on operating the property past 2023. it is probably not practical to get that bill repealed unless St John has a lot of friends in Congress, which it does not. that said, St Johnians do know how to organize and fight.

    unfortunately CBI’s game plan may be to sit on this until close to 2023 and see if Plaskett can come through for them on the better deal. which means nothing will happen at the property for the next 4 years.

    it would be interesting to know the financial and donation relationship between Plasket and CBI.

    • Larry
      October 9, 2018 at 3:23 pm

      I’ve said this before, and at the risk of speaking out negatively about the “powers that be” in the USVI, It is very hard to trust Ms. Plaskett’s honesty and interest in the wellbeing of the people of St. John. I love St. John, have visited more than a dozen times including a family get-together at Caneel. But I agree—-something SMELLS FISHY.

  7. Salty Dog
    October 8, 2018 at 1:53 pm

    Who owns the land? What would stop me from showing up with a cooler and some beers; day at the beach? Maybe we should just start showing up.

    If it is national park, then We all own it. Can you get your hands on the current agreement between CBI and he Park? Perhaps we can find a loophole ( lack of upkeep? ) that would give St. Johnians the right the utilize the property.

  8. PA Girl
    October 8, 2018 at 2:12 pm

    We spent many wonderful holidays at Caneel and always enjoyed the restaurants and the beach bar during villa trips. Add to that a background in commercial development, real estate donation to not-for-profits and government entities and I am borderline obsessed with this issue.

    I would be interested in knowing what, if anything, the agreement says about the state of the property at the end of agreement.

    At most, if not all, of the other national park properties with concessions, the buildings are in place at an on-going operation. The NPS would need to almost give any future lease away for next to nothing to attract a legit investor/operator to invest millions.

    What a mess.

  9. Debbie Manning
    October 8, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    Is there anyone we can write to expressing in a positive way all the wonderful memories we have shared at Caneel? Have people send letters after letters and proving how much we miss the facility let alone the wonderful people on the island. Hoping to stop this madness and move forward. Love to help any way I can.

  10. Lisa
    October 8, 2018 at 6:25 pm

    Clean up hasn’t started at Cinnamon Bay Camp ground either. Is there a RUE associated with that property I wonder?

    • News of St. John
      News of St. John
      October 8, 2018 at 7:32 pm

      No. They’re operating under a concession agreement.

  11. Sue & Burt
    October 8, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    Loyalty
    Integrity
    Caneel and Cinnamon owners seem lacking these strengths.
    St. John inherited from Laurence Rockefeller the gift and hope for preserving
    a natural/pristine island. We who acknowledge and appreciate this gift must
    continue to fight for the health & welfare of this special island.

  12. Jan
    October 9, 2018 at 12:40 am

    Thanks for yr excellent reporting and update…Just so very sad for the people and loss of this fabulous property….hoping this changes soon!

  13. October 9, 2018 at 8:29 am

    Thanks for the great reporting! Lets start a petition to pressure the powers that be to end CBI’s reign of gross mismanagement and get somebody who cares about St John to run it. l like the sound of “Chesney’s Island Retreat at Caneel Bay”

  14. Future Sailor
    October 9, 2018 at 11:01 am

    CBI may have business interruption insurance in addition to their property insurance. It may explain your fishy intuitions. If they have it, they may be collecting on the policy and have no incentive to expedite negotiations with the park service. Might be worth exploring as the insurer may not be aware of the full situation and could be pressured to force CBI to act.

    • News of St. John
      News of St. John
      October 9, 2018 at 11:23 am

      They do have business interruption insurance. I filed a freedom of information request for their insurance docs. Still waiting…

  15. Brion Morrisette
    October 9, 2018 at 11:45 am

    Great reporting, Jenn! The greed and bad faith of CBI and its principals becomes ever more apparent. And that is without even mentioning their asinine closure of the public’s use (CBI’s employees and the employees of the Bikini Beach bar use it, however – every day) of the National Park trail system to cross Caneel to get to Salomon and Caneel beaches!
    A petition to Plaskett, to the Sec of the Dept of Interior, and to all members of the House and Senate might help a lot. Legal action by the Nat’l Park would also be helpful. CBI is being allowed – because no one is pressuring them – to play its “wait and see” game, as it continues to do exactly as it wants, including violating laws of public access. CBI is clearly concerned purely with maximizing their own profits, without an ounce of genuine interest in the history and legacy of this remarkable property, or the well-being of its employees, or the interests of the people of St. John. But we can count on them to wrangle every last dollar they can out of this business opportunity, so they have to be watched and controlled. Thanks, Jenn, for staying on top of this very important topic.

  16. Pam gaffin
    October 9, 2018 at 6:33 pm

    Bravo! Excellent “real news” reporting – thank you very much, please do some more!

    Pam Gaffin

  17. Drew
    October 9, 2018 at 8:06 pm

    Nothing will happen without sufficient pressure and exposure.
    Island activists will need to gather arguments and approach a viable media outlet requesting their assistance on shedding light on CBI/Equis Caneel Bay plans and it’s Fed & local government affiliations.
    Bloomberg might be a good start.

  18. Lisa Swing
    October 9, 2018 at 8:12 pm

    Great report, got to wonder if the park service requires being named as loss payee and additional insured on the insurance policies of any and all leased properties, buildings etc the park owns? Banks that hold your mortgage, car companies that lease vehicles…all cover their property interest and liability risks by requiring the “renters” “lessors” “mortgagees” what have you to do this. Plus the park should have their own excess policy in the event of a default.

  19. Heather
    October 11, 2018 at 4:14 pm

    St. John is a beautiful place because of the land and the people, CBI cares about neither. I’ve visited the island many times, stepping onto Caneel only two times and feeling like a leper because I wasn’t staying there. National Parks should be for all to enjoy. I’m curious to know how all the stranded employees feel about their previous employer because I doubt they treated them with respect, they’re really only concerned about the bottom line and the easiest way to get there. Are there any other businesses on St. John who receive the same perks?

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