Ladies and Gentlemen, I have some AWESOME news for you today! If you have visited St. John over the past five years, you have probably noticed the overall lack of outdoor facilities for our kiddos. We used to have two baseball fields and a functional playground right in Cruz Bay and a ball field in Coral Bay as well. After Hurricane Irma, the ballfield near the National Parks Dock (across from Mongoose Junction) was utilized a as a parking area for Federal vehicles and, later in recovery efforts, the BBC trucks.
The ball field near Julius E. Sprauve School (JESS) was functional post-Irma until the space was reappropriated to accommodate the modular classroom units. And, while a small playground was constructed on the school grounds at JESS for the school children to utilize during recess, the access to a competitive sports area for the children of St. John was diminished. The Coral Bay ball field, part of the Moravian Church property, still sits unused and in disrepair. And while the tennis courts and basketball courts have been open and recently received re-paving and facelifts, the playground near the NPS dock and ballfield has remained a sad, sad sight. BUT, in the name of progress (!), next month, construction, repairs and a full rebuild of the playground will begin with the goal of incorporating the nature, culture and history of St. John in a kid friendly and community minded environment.
Now, this project, a partnership of Friends of Virgin Islands National Park (Friends VINP) and the Virgin Islands National Park (VINPS), is going to be SO much more than a playground! According to the Friends VINP Playground Project website, the new space should be viewed as a Children’s Gateway to Virgin Islands National Park. The Ridgetop to Reef Playground will incorporate natural landscapes with native plants, a playhouse modeled after a historical building, other play structures made to inspire learning and community meeting areas.
The playground area will include:
- Large playhouse (6-12 years old)
- Small playhouse (0-5 years old)
- Large swing set
- Supernova rotating balancing ring
- Toddler swing set carousel
- Ranger Station replica
- Interpretative signage
Local horticulturist Eleanor Gibney has been working alongside the Friends VINP crews in order to propagate native plants on the beaches and trails over the past few years. She has assisted on the playground project by selecting the native plants that will provide shade around the grounds and also be a part of a native garden with pathways and interpretive signage. A St. John based company, Alfredo’s, will be responsible for the landscaping of the park. The following plants will be incorporated into the play space and community area:
- Pink Cedar
- Sea Grape
- Gre Gre
- Bay Rum
- Jamaican Caper
- Lignum Vitae
In addition to the gardens and kid’s play areas there will also be several areas for parents to relax, covered community meeting and picnic areas, additional play spaces and a small amphitheater. The construction and renovations, which will begin on October 1, will be done in two phases. The first will include the playground, sidewalks and gardens. The second phase will include the amphitheater, replication of the VINP Ranger Station playhouse, seating near the dock and shade structures.
I spoke with Friends VINP Executive Director, Tonia Lovejoy, yesterday afternoon to get a bit more detail on the upcoming project and she explained that the project was broken down into two parts in order to basically put a “rush” on the playground revamp. The Department of the Interior’s Rapid Review Process limits a project based on the value of assets. The Ridgetop to Reef Playground, budgeted at $800,000, needed to be under $500k to move full speed ahead. So, they broke it down into two separate projects, under $500K each.
“The people of St. John have been SO patient!” she sighed.
Now, let’s take a look at, even with this rapid review process, WHY it has taken so long to see forward progress on this play area. Seemingly it shouldn’t be hard to build a playground, right? Wrong!
First, the land is owned by the Federal Government (National Park/Department of Interior) but the playground and ballfield are leased by the USVI Sports Parks and Recreation office. Sound familiar? Think Caneel and VIERS. So, lots of red tape there alone.
Second, we are talking about a children’s play area on Federal property next to a body of water. There has been a TON of regulations and protocol to follow as far as Federal rules and regulations about playgrounds, according to Tonia. Every possible piece of red tape to cut or hoop to jump through has been presented in order to get these plans approved, permitted and moving forward. And with good reason. I mean, bureaucracy sucks don’t get me wrong. But we are talking about keeping kids safe here!
Additionally, the National Parks Service on the Federal level has experienced years of transition and underfunding itself. The first request was put in for the playground in 2018; at a time when NPS didn’t even have a director at the National level! In December of 2021, the first Director of National Parks was named in over five years. So, for five years…Do the math on that in relationship to the impact of Hurricane Irma…The National Park Service did not have a “boss.” And they have relied heavily on local partnerships, such as the beautiful relationship between Friends and VINP, to get things done.
It’s incredible, ” said Tonia, “To see how natural disasters really impact a community. How long does it really take for a community to get back on its feet? How many bonds relationships or processes were broken as a result of the storms?”
We are so incredibly lucky to have had Nigel Fields, Superintendent of VINP, take office here on St. John in January of 2019. He has repeatedly shown his commitment to listening to and working with the Love City community over these past few years. And now, with a new Director of the Park Service in place Federally and Nigel locally, we move forward. Full speed ahead.
And now, we are moving forward with a beautiful new play space for all ages in the heart of Cruz Bay. The ball field was completed by NPS last month and has been turned over to Sports Parks and Recreation for upcoming use of the community once again. The public restrooms and the NPS Visitors Center at the docks will soon be getting updates as well. It’s been a lot of time and patience on the part of our community, but we are moving towards the future now. Continue to be patient and pardon our dust…Things are happening for the better, but we are still on island time 🙂
Friends VINP continues to work to meet the fundraising goals for second phase of the Ridgetop to Reef Playground Project. A wonderful and generous gift from part-time St. John residents, Dr. Steven and Jann Paul, of $350,000 and other donations from over 100 individuals and businesses made the allowance to begin phase one of this project. With an aim to having it completed by the end of 2022.
If you would like to contribute to this AWESOME Cruz Bay beautification project to benefit both the children and adults, residents and visitors of our island, please visit the Friends VINP Playground Project website!