We have all watched and waited…and then waited and watched some more….for some kind of movement from the infamous Caneel Bay Resort. Once a a property of Laurence Rockefeller, the beautiful expanse of beaches, landscapes, restaurants, shops and accommodations has sat unoccupied and barren since Hurricanes Irma and Maria stripped it of its beauty and functionality on St. John in 2017 (With the obvious exception of the newly opened Zozo’s at Caneel Bay).
Well, a press release from an affiliate of CBI Acquisitions (CBIA) was released earlier this month and it seems like things are moving in a direction. Finally. Additionally, a panel of St. John residents and representatives aired last week, raising some support, some questions and some concerns in regards to this forward motion.
The press release announced a long awaited step in a direction towards a future for the Caneel Bay Resort. EHI Acquisitions, LLC (EHI) reported on December 9, 2020, that they have reached an understanding with the Department of the Interior to move forward with negotiations toward a long-term lease for Caneel Bay Resort. And for the National Park Service (NPS) to begin the next phase of environmental assessments on the property. EHI is an affiliate company of CBIA, the current management company under the terms of the Retained Use Estate (RUE) formed by Jackson Hole Preserve, Incorporated in 1983.
“This good faith understanding is an important next step for both parties toward a long-term lease for the future operation of the property and subsequently the future of tourism and prosperity in the local economy. In addition to the recovery and reopening of the resort, addressing environmental stewardship remains a top priority. The parties will work cooperatively and in good faith to define and develop any necessary actions concerning environmental matters at Caneel Bay. Following Interior and EHI reaching this agreement, the NPS will now resume environmental site assessments at the property to evaluate appropriate next steps, including whether and to what extent cleanup and remediation may be necessary.” (Direct from the press release)
The environmental assessments mentioned are a cause for concern for the community, among many other issues with the way the resort has operated under the current management company. In September of this year St. John resident and Friends VINP and Island Green board member, David DiGiacomo, sent a personal notice of intent to sue over environmental contamination at Caneel Bay to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, DOI, NPS, the Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and CBIA. This notice followed a formal letter from Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park released in August that stated their position on the future of the, once pristine, island resort. (See full article).
On Friday, December 18, in a panel hosted by WTJX Virgin Islands National Public Broadcasting System, several St. John community members and government representatives, including DiGiacomo and Todd Sampsell (President of Friends VINP), shared their thoughts and wisdom in regards to Caneel Bay of the past and the forward motion of this newly announced negotiation between the management company and the government. Other participants included Lorelei Monsanto (STJ Resident and Community Activist), Senator Steven D. Payne and Sr., Angeline Muckle-Jabbar (Chief of Staff for Congresswoman Stacey E. Plaskett). The forum was moderated by Pam Richards.
The common concerns throughout the discussion were community inclusion within these negotiations, community access to the property, the educational and business development of locals in partnership with the property and, obviously, the assessment and proper clean up of the hazardous wastes on the property that could currently pose threats to the health of the public and our precious Eco systems.
Sen. Payne and Monsanto both began the panel discussion by speaking about the Caneel Bay they remember when growing up on St. John.
Monsanto remembers the employees at Caneel Bay almost being a part of visitors’ vacations. And year after year, the annual guests would ask for employees by name. They were like a part of the family. She also remembers the children of St. John being able to go play on the property and use the beaches. It was a loving and caring environment and was accessible to the public.
Sen. Payne remembered, with a smile, playing music on the property for sunset cruises and weddings. “The youth group would perform at Christmas,” he stated.
He also concurred that it was a family-based atmosphere and remembers spending Sundays with his family having brunch at the waterfront restaurant.
A common concern within the group is one that I have heard on St. John since the beginning of my time here. Being the little island that could, we just want to be a part of the discussion and have our voices heard. Especially in regards to the future of this property that holds so much history for the residents of the island.
A lot of discussion turned to the inclusion of local vendors and the inclusion of educational programs in the negotiations of the lease. Monsanto referred to the time since the 2017 storms that destroyed the resort, during which St. John residents proved resilient by creating new business opportunities for themselves while Caneel sat in disrepair. Despite the $32 million in insurance money that CBIA has received.
“St. John grew. We didn’t die,” she said, in regards to the creation of new business ventures in lieu of the hundreds of jobs lost when Caneel was destroyed. “We created a new dynamic.”
Sampsell weighed in that the Friends’ position remains that they would love to see the vibrant, active Caneel Bay up and running again as efficiently as possible ” in a manner that ensures long term protection of park resources and long term protection of a critically important part of St. John’s economy” and with inclusion and benefits for the local community.
Harith Wickrema, also of Island Green, called into the discussion and suggested agricultural programs (maybe marine as well?)that would include training of students at both the primary and university levels in the realm of “farm to table” concepts on the property and taking the resort off the grid. He suggests a partnership with the University of the Virgin Islands’ cultural and agricultural programs. And the definite need for local vendors at Caneel Bay….A unique, Eco resort experience that ties into the local culture and community. “People pay money for this,” he concluded.
Payne agreed that a partnership with small businesses, UVI and local government would be good step in the right direction within these negotiations in order to reintegrate the St. John community. And that somewhere along the timeline, the current management “lost the sense of being a community partner.”
The first step in this would be for the Gary Engle, CEO and chairman of Stoneleigh Capital LLC, the parent company of CBIA, and DOI to hear the requests of St. John community leaders and involve some of them in the discussion. DiaGiacomo sited a 10 page report compiled by STJ residents a year and a half ago that was submitted to Engle that outlined the requests of the community. There has been no response to that memo. However, Senator Payne will be sworn into office on January 11 and has promised a virtual town hall meeting on this topic by the end of the first month of the new year!
The report is not the first attempt by St. Johnians and their representatives to reach out to Engle. Muckle-Jabbar says that Congresswoman Plaskett has repeatedly requested that Engle get to work on cleaning up the devastated resort…without compliance. Senator Payne said that he has also reached out to Engle and he was reluctant in his response. The 90 day expiration for Engle’s response and/or action to the legal filings is December 28. According to DiGiacomo, he has not heard anything in response.
Monsanto referred back to the $32 million in insurance money, stating that a portion of that was, in fact, for the debris cleanup. The environmental concerns in regards to hazardous waste are likely a whole different ball game. They were found in the 2012-2017 environmental assessments and were not placed there by the infamous storms, but the spreading of them was likely amplified by the heavy winds and rains of Irmaria.
DiGiacomo suggested it might be helpful for the people watching to understand that this is not a small amount of chemical waste they are talking about. He lists pesticides, silver, arsenic, asbestos in large quantities, benzine, mercury and a significant diesel spill to name a few. Concluding that these chemicals present a “danger to people and animals.” (Please refer to the Friends VINP website for the full environmental reports.)
Sampsell followed this statement by citing the RUE in regards to CBIA’s lack of responsibility for maintaining the property under the terms:
And followed by saying that NPS DOES have the right to ensure things are being protected. And also listed the denial of public access to the property and the bulldozing of ancestral burial grounds as additional violations of Rockefeller’s agreement.
DiGiacomo cited an additional memo from June 25, 2010 that Engle did an excavation without approval that involved the bull dozing of slave quarters. He followed with the speculation that it couldn’t have happened overnight….”Where was the National Park?”
Muckle-Jabbar commented that Senator Plaskett is a strong supporter of the preservation of St. John history.
“Is the three year closure in defiance of the RUE?” she pondered. “I think so, yes.”
But NPS plays an important role in accountability.
Sampsell agrees that the RUE has been violated, but speculates that this may be the fastest track to get Caneel open again. However, suggests that DOI find the violations as a means to extinguish the RUE and then open a competitive bid for potential lessors. He earlier stated in the discussion that there are just over two years left of the RUE and it should be going back to the community. “We know there are partners who would support the St. John community and NPS.”
I feel the undercurrent of these discussions is extremely productive and comes from a place of love for the island of St. John, a passion to protect her culture and her environment and a desire to make a brighter future for her residents and visitors alike. I will be following this discussion as it progresses and hope to report back next month on the town hall discussion Senator Payne has promised!
Here is the full 90-minute discussion if you would like to watch!