The Future of Maho Bay Camp

(Recent Past and) Future of Maho Bay Camp

It is generally not my purpose to post on the current goings on at the former Maho Bay Camps, partly because there is not much to report.  However, I recently had a chat with Maggie Day, the former Vice President of Maho Bay Camps, Inc., who worked tirelessly with the Trust for Public Land for many years to find a way to save Maho Bay Camps from closing. I thought I should share with others since there are many who miss it and who would like to have some understanding of what happened.

(Maggie started working at the General Manager at Maho Bay Camps around 1999 or 2000, about the same time I first started working there. She later became the VP when Stanley Selengut retired from day to day duties, and she oversaw Maho, Harmony Studios and Concordia Eco-resort.)

Maho’s preservation had seemed nearly a sure thing when Maggie stepped down to spend two years in Africa with the Peace Corps (2011-2013.) I remember speaking to her in December 2008 about the various efforts above and beyond the Trust for Public Land that she was investigating to preserve Maho Bay Camp and she left no stone unturned.  In addition to working on multiple scenarios to save Maho, she had a bottomless well of energy and positivity towards her job and efforts to save Maho.

Maggie filled me in on what had happened over the last five years to get to where we are now and I wanted to pass along some things that I did not know and am guessing others did not know either.

Morning sunrise from Maho Bay Camp.
Morning sunrise from Maho Bay Camp.

You may know the Trust for Public Land (TPL) put in bids to purchase the land and as a non-profit organization they were bound to offer only as much as the assessed value. The owners of the land were asking for a quite a bit more than the assessed value, and ultimately ended up selling the land for significantly less than what TPL had originally offered!  The owners listed the land for sale at $32 million and eventually sold it for $13.9 million on 12/27/12.

Going back to the efforts of TPL to buy the land, I was surprised to hear the details of what TPL was planning to do with the land.  I was aware that their efforts might in some way “save” the campground,and Maggie told me more.  She said that TPL understood and supported the two important objectives of Maho Bay Camp: Affordability and Sustainability. TPL had hoped to be the new landowners, continue running Maho Bay Camp after upgrading the water treatment, physical structures and sustainable features; basically bringing camp’s sustainability into the 21st century. And then they were going to give Maho Bay Camps, Inc. the concession to (continue to) run the campground!  Per the TPL website:

“For more than 30 years, earth-conscious visitors have enjoyed natural, open-air vacations in these tropical tree-houses. Surrounding the camp are shady hiking trails including walks to historic plantation ruins…  Trust for Public Land is working to preserve Maho Bay Camps as a natural, undeveloped campground that will continue to offer affordable vacations and sustain St. John’s distinctive ecotourism character.”

TPL (the Trust for Public Land) would have then used the money generated from Maho Bay Camps as another source of income to further their preservation efforts.  With their broad reach, I think TPL would have been able to increase bookings over time, particularly in the summer which is becoming a popular time to visit St. John.

The very thought of how close we were to a sustainable, physical upgrade combined with the continuation of Maho Bay Camp is thrilling and heartbreaking all at once…

Maggie had just returned from Africa a few weeks before I met with her, and she had time to reconnect with some of the people she had worked with to save Maho Bay Camp and find out what had happened after she left. She did confirm that the new owner will not be selling or donating the land to TPL, and will not be reopening the campground. He intends to preserve it; for it to become undeveloped (and deconstructed, as you can witness if you go to Big Maho Bay Beach.)

The identity of the new land owner has been an open secret on island for a while. Jon Stryker has become widely known as the purchaser of the land, although there have not been any public announcements of any kind.  He appears to be the best possible buyer of the land, after the Trust for Public Land.

Impacts on St. John

Although the Virgin Islands National Park boundary includes three-quarters of St. John, the national park owns only slightly more than half the island.  The National Park has preserved much of St. John from the fate of many of the other islands in the Caribbean. Over development!  Nevertheless, an increasing concern for the VI National Park is the escalating pace of development on private inholdings inside its borders, such as the Ingrao Residence that recently cut down 100-year old trees within the park in order to get a better view of St. Thomas!

Living on St. John I developed a deeper understanding and opinion of what will benefit the island and its future. When I would simply vacation for a week or two there were many things I never had to consider or did not catch in the news. Recycling, water use, cost of electricity, mitigating runoff to the coral reef, and disposing of items shipped to the island (to mention a few.)

I also learned that the VI National Park is the lowest funded park in the national park system. The park has positions they can not fill due to lack of funds, and with the sequestration they have been unable to fill jobs that were recently vacated. They lost vehicles in a fire and did not have it in their budge to replace them. It has been the continuous relationship and support from the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park and numerous volunteers that keep things working.

So, while the 2007 acquisition of Estate Maho Bay (420 acres), the land starting at the beach at BIG Maho Bay and running up the hill to Centerline Drive, helped to preserve one of the island’s largest and most popular beach and land from being developed by a large mega hotel.  It is an historical piece of St. John with strong ties to the Slave Revolt and a former plantation. Had the land gone to a hotel, there was a high risk of the road being closed and diverted up to Centerline Road, two projects that would have significantly impacted the environment around the bay. It is nevertheless a challenge to add so much land to such an underfunded and understaffed park. Hopefully the long term outlook for Park funding will improve.

The land sold from under Maho Bay Camps does not appear to be headed to the park, but maintaining such a property takes a commitment of time and money, whether from dismantling the infrastructure, maintaining the integrity of the land and avoiding trespassers when there are so many developed access points.

My Soapbox

My opinion as to the best future use of the land is colored by my love of Maho Bay Camp and what it offered and in wishing to see TPL’s vision come to life.

When I was in architecture school I recall one of my professors saying that the best thing we can do with pristine places is to preserve them and not build on them. I was also told that the most sustainable place to live was in a large city. I considered both comments. I lived in New York City for a year and a half and can list so many ways that it is not sustainable. It also offers a way of life that disconnects people and their actions from the effects on the planet or their nearby environment.  Whereas, when I lived on St. John I lived at Maho Bay Camp (tent, cold shower, bugs and all) and began to learn about my actions, the weather and development and how each affected the life of the coral reefs, fish and beaches that drew me there. Had St. John remained pristine and untouched, I never would have visited and would not have become interested in sustainability and architecture (or blogging), and my life would have been very different. And many other people’s lives would have been different too. Possibly many of us would not have learned the lessons about why we should care about the environment.  

Maho Bay Camps provided things that you cannot readily find elsewhere on the island.

They employed a large staff and housed them, many who worked at other local business part-time. Those same people are now competing for limited housing on island and will need full time jobs. Part-timers for local business might be harder to find. And Maho offered full medical insurance, which many jobs on the island do not.

Maho was an early pioneer of sustainability before we were even talking about it as a nation or worldwide. While today’s green technology is outpacing what a campground can afford to install and use, Maho nevertheless continued to educate and be an example of minimal land impact, natural ventilation and recycling of materials (especially glass!) These are not small issues on St. John where there is no local landfill, the cost of water and electricity is five times that of the mainland, and overuse of these cause heavy demands on the infrastructure of the islands. Simply understanding how to build with minimal land/plant disruption is critical. Storm water runoff can damage the reefs surrounding the island because there is only a maximum of 2 ½ feet of topsoil. Any development of the land damages the fragile roots and plants that hold the soil on the steep slopes of St. John. 

These are issues I learned about because I loved staying at Maho Bay Camp. I knew nothing about sustainability before staying there in 1995, but once I found out why things were built the way they were and about the unique environment of the island, I wanted to find out more.  

Sunset over Cruz Bay.
Sunset over Cruz Bay.

Living on such a small island I could see the effects of man and nature:

  • Two solid weeks of rain (November of 2003 actually!) when many of the bays around the island turned brown from runoff and roads were closed due to mudslides from destabilized land;
  • A summer drought where local trees did not die from lack of rain, but actually wilted, until they finally got the drink they needed;
  • Continuously hearing the honks and braking of the large water trucks driving around the island delivering fresh water;
  • watching the number of fish decrease every year since my first visit in 1995 and thinking it was a function of becoming accustomed to snorkeling until a park ranger confirmed that the numbers decrease every year;
  • Experiencing the buildings that are uncomfortably hot in the summer because they have solid walls facing the prevailing winds and windows facing into the afternoon sun with no protection vs. the buildings that feel amazingly perfect due to the shade from their surrounding porches and trees and plenty of windows to allow the cooling trade winds to pass through.

When you add up:

  1. The cost of water,
  2. The cost of electricity,
  3. The cost of shipping building materials to the island to build anything,
  4. And the cost of a view and location on St. John where you see green forest and blue water and not big mega hotels and packed houses on the hillside,

it is understandable why vacationing on St. John can be expensive.  And that is before you factor in airline tickets, car rental or taxi fares, meals, boat trips or snorkel gear. There will be very few affordable options on St. John for the people who came to Maho Bay Camps. Land has skyrocketed to such an extent over the last 20 years that it would be too cost prohibitive to start a new campground in 2014. Or it would require a significant investment in sustainable technology to offset the operating costs.

But… there was one already in place! Most of what was needed was already there and constructed/connected. Restoration by its very nature is 50% more sustainable than even the best new sustainable construction.

Maho Bay Camps would have been a wonderful restoration if owned by the Trust for Public Land.

They were going to upgrade and improve those features that were outdated, the camp would have provided a means for people other than simply the wealthy to visit and enjoy the National Park, and most importantly allow a new generation to learn about the unique environment of St. John, where they could see tangible examples of working sustainability efforts. A place where we begin to learn how our actions are not only important on St. John, but everywhere we live.

Let’s be honest.

The way most of us live and the way cities are designed, we are insulated from how our actions affect the environment. And it is easy to tune out – I know that in the years of haste during graduate school and the long working hours later, that I lost touch with the lessons I saw and knew first hand on St. John. Trash recycling has been the most successful endeavor, but in the States I did not have to take short showers, wash my clothes in cold water when the cistern was full or be conscious of my use of electricity or the gas in my car. I did not know where my water came from or went to.  It is easier to ignore sustainability in the States.

Maho was never perfect, and it never could be the MOST sustainable resort (as some insist it should be), and it would be affordable but there would still be a large segment of people who could not afford to stay there ($125 – 145/night for camping is still pricey.) But it was making an effort and offering an alternative, which it seems no one else is able to do. It created what few places on the island offer, even now: Affordability and Sustainability.

I don’t want to see a hotel built on that land, but I also don’t feel that St. John needs another land preserve. 

There are a lot of ways to “do good”. 

A 21st century Maho Bay Camp would have been an outstanding addition to the island of St. John, for the Trust for Public Land, for the guests who have still not found something comparable, and quite possibly for the Caribbean.

I could envision a resort that offered sustainable jobs, taught about caring for the island environment and how it related to the world at large, valued and cooked organic foods, brought in war veterans for a chance to heal their spirits, supported the vanishing local historical culture of the island, and housed eco-conferences on the reef, fish and waters. That alone would have brought in plenty of new guests, since I know most regulars would keep coming as well.  Maho was never booked solid and it could have been. There was room for so much more.

MAHO was worth preserving because it was an entity in low quantity on St. John and in the Caribbean and it is an entity that is disappearing. There was nothing similar to Maho in price and low impact on the land (for large groups of visitors to stay.) And there probably will not be again.

Sometimes idealistic vision and action are actually more sustainable than pristine preservation.

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17 thoughts on “The Future of Maho Bay Camp”

  1. Thank you for the update. It is hard to hear, but good to know the truth. I suppose a small part of me was hoping that Jon Stryker would restore Maho Bay Camps or an updated version of MBC.. I am glad that it won’t be the site of a resort. I suppose anything is possible in the future as long as the land has been saved from development.

  2. Maybe we can start a letter campaign to John Stryker (he did buy it) from everyone who has been impacted by Maho and would like him to sell it to the Trust so it can go back to the people. This is the saddest story. We went to Maho for 25 years and the hole it leaves in our hearts is immense. Sad that we didn’t know Trust wasn’t going to buy it. I’m sure we could have collectively raised 13 million dollars.

    1. Hi Melissa,

      I have set up a survey to try to help organize people who’d like to have a dialog with Maho’s new owner, and would like help networking so that interested people can find the survey.

      The link for the survey is https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/MahoBayFuture.

      What I’m told is that the Trust tried to buy the land from the previous owner but there were several parties involved and one was not willing to sell at appraised value in 2011. TPL also tried to follow up with the new owner, who apparently had been invited to Maho for the earlier initiative as a potential major donor, but apparently the owner was not interested in working with TPL this year. I think the situation is complicated and wish I knew more but I do think there is still some chance a 3rd party group could have an impact, or wouldn’t be bothering with this survey effort. Please take the survey, and pass it on to others, thanks.

  3. Wonderful to hear that the land under Maho Bay Camps was not purchased by some speculator or mega-hotel developer and that Mr. Stryker is intending to “preserve” the land, whatever exactly that means. I would argue, however, that “preserving” the property in it’s natural state, while commendable, does little to promote and show the beauty of the area to the public. A camp such as Maho Bay was is a great way to introduce a large segment of population to an environment that most of us are not accustomed to, and, while it may be nice to think that Little Maho Beach will be “preserved”, what good is that if nobody can experience it?

  4. So beautifully stated. Thank you. There is ALWAYS hope, until we die. The vision of MBC — beyond what it was to what it could have been, to what it could yet be — will have to be enough to sustain us. It’s all we have. That, and hope. From his website and from articles about him, Jon Stryker is apparently a man with lots of money . . . and lots of compassion, for persecuted human beings and endangered primates. A good man. A sensitive man. IF ONLY he had experienced MBC for himself, had learned its messages first-hand. But maybe, just maybe he will read what you have written and finally understand what that special place meant. And then act as you have suggested. Maybe. We hope. . . . Long live Maho Bay Camps!

  5. Thank you Al Forsyth for the kind words, and yes, it is unfortunate that Mr. Stryker, for what we know anyway, never experienced Maho Bay Camps as a resident. Like you stated, perhaps he, as a compassionate person, will read some of our posts and those at the Save Maho Bay Camps site as well. One can only hope!!

  6. I’m curious about the potential for expanding the campground at the National Park, in relation to partly compensating for loss of affordable camping at Maho Bay Camps. I only know a little about the Park’s campground concession: that (like the Caneel hotel property) the campground is managed by a private company, in a concession arrangement. But now the arrangement for Caneel is changing to on-island management. Is anything like that possible for the campground? The site is lovely in many ways, but the concession holder puts the minimum into upkeep–everything looks a little gloomy and worn–and they don’t seem proactive about expanding in relation to the Maho closing. I wonder if anyone connected with Friends of the Park would know how the moving pieces fit together for the Park, Campground, and possible better management and expansion there?

    1. Susan, that is an interesting proposition. I agree with your view that the property is gloomy and minimally maintained. I believe that may be due to the very low funds that the VI National Park has to work with, leading to maintenance but not any upgrades or improvements. As a result I imagine they do not have the funds to expand, although it would be a good time to consider doing it (or maybe even a few years ago). I certainly hope that the Friends of the Park would be discussing ideas on how to maintain options to a more nature-based, and ideally sustainable, stays would be expanded for visitors to the island…

  7. Just a couple corrections on this, Stanley deserves the credit for directing my work and then Adrian Davis’ after me, to assist TPL’s effort to acquire and protect the Maho Bay Camps land. We don’t know if they would have contracted with Maho Bay Camps, Inc. to manage it if they were successful with a purchase, and I didn’t think the acquisition was a done deal when I left, but we had hope. I don’t know what the current owner intends to do with the property, have heard rumors the land will be preserved in it’s natural state.

    I have conflicting emotions when seeing the Maho Bay Camps land now. A sense of loss of the Camps’ energy, creativity and joy; a sense of pride that the site sensitive development Stanley pioneered and so many worked to maintain for 36 years allowed over 1 million visitors to visit and enjoy this remarkable camp, now able to revert quickly back to nature; and a sense of peace in the presence of the now quiet beauty of that hillside and shoreline.

    1. Hi Maggie! Thank you for your comments and additions! I hope I did not overstate TPL’s intention to continue the campground. I did find an article in The Tradewinds where John Garrison states that TPL was intending to continue the campground and the TPL website (link in blog) stated the same thing so I felt confident in that possible future. As for the preservation of the property, yes, only time will tell.

  8. Interesting statement at the beginning of this article….

    “You may know the Trust for Public Land (TPL) put in bids to purchase the land and as a non-profit organization they were bound to offer only as much as the assessed value. The owners of the land were asking for a quite a bit more than the assessed value, and ultimately ended up selling the land for significantly less than what TPL had originally offered! The owners listed the land for sale at $32 million and eventually sold it for $13.9 million on 12/27/12.”

    Sold for less than TPL had offered?

    1. The land was for sale for a number of years, and during the last five years the land values on St. John have dropped just as they have throughout the US. This changed the appraised value of the property, such that the last appraised value fell below what TPL originally offered for the property. For the last five or so years it has been a “buyer’s market” not a “seller’s market” but I guess the previous owners did not want to admit it….

  9. Is the removal of the campgrounds not a quantifiable net gain for the site environmentally? I understand it will mean no opportunity for those of us who can not afford to vacation elsewhere on St John, but perhaps the benefit to the island is being lost in our own personal nostalgia. One million visits and 114 units are incredibly burdensome numbers for such a sensitive and important site.

  10. Thanks Kristin and Maggie. I heard from Renee of Pepper that Stryker had been brought to Maho as a potential donor when TPL was working on negotiating a sale, which adds to the mystery. This is the reason why I think it might be worth having a new party into the picture to inquire what Stryker’s plans are and whether he would entertain offers about alternative futures for the land, since Stryker clearly is not interested in working with Maho Bay Camps Inc or probably not even TPL.

    Parker, I think there are a couple metrics by which paying $13.9 million for the 13.8 acres of land at Maho Bay Camps to return it to its pristine condition is a poor choice of conservation investment.

    First is to compare how a million visitors to Maho compare with a million visitors elsewhere on St. John, the Caribbean, and other places people consider as alternatives. I think Maho Bay Camps allowed for a much lower impact per visitor than most alternatives. FYI, Trunk Bay is quoted as having half a million visits each year, and I don’t think Maho visitors constitute the majority even on the neighboring beaches – Francis, Waterlemon, or Big Maho, but the ethic of use from little Maho probably would not be as strong on those three beaches without the influence of Maho Bay Camps.

    Second, for conservation purposes, the 13.8 acres at Maho Bay Camps is a small parcel with a large price tag. Compare it, for example, with the 419 acres conserved at Estate Maho Bay, for $19 Million, the most significant addition to the VI national park since it was formed. If you were to ask the national park service, I think they could identify many alternative plots they are interested in keeping in their pristine state with a higher environmental bang for the buck.

    Also consider this thought experiment: do you think Estate Maho Bay would have wound up in the national park if a traditional development had been built instead of Mahio Bay Campground 38 years ago?

  11. John Stryker is the well known Kalamazoo based philanthropist who founded the Arcus Foundation, NYC, which focuses on the protection of the Great Apes and global LGBT.

    I am unclear how he would respond to a campaign asking him why he is taking away a preserve that has served as an ecco-sensitive school for children and adults which thousands of people love and would continue to support.

    I think we should find a way to ask Mr. Stryker to return Maho Bay to the thousands of people who cherish the place and wildlife.

    John Stryker has enough. Does he take Maho Bay from us or can we persuade him to share?

  12. I was blessed to be able to visit Maho Bay twice with my children – and it was a life-changing experience for all of us. Maho gave us some of our most cherished memories, has influenced what they are choosing to do with their education and life plans, and changed how we live and vacation. We were devastated by news of the closure. Hopefully, there is a solution that can preserve the natural resources of this unique, beautiful and important ecosystem, provide similar opportunities for the next generation, and return economic vitality to St. John. Luckily, there do not seem to be immediate plans to commercialize the property (kudos to Mr. Stryker) – so hope still exists. (And, if by chance I win the lottery my first call is to Mr. Stryker!)

  13. It’s so interesting for us to read this discussion, especially to hear Maggie’s comments. Hi Maggie! We’ve missed seeing you these past few years.
    I cannot agree more with the eloquent comment by Caro. Maho was our anchor as we raised our children and its values are imbued in the ways the think and act.
    Our family visited Maho every year for 20 years, Our sons, John and Liam, now 21 and 18, “grew up” there and as NYC boys, learned to value nature, quiet and working together to sustain a modest lifestyle during our time each year at Maho. January 2013 was our last visit. Two days ago, Jan 9, 2014, we returned from a week at Ivan’s on Jost and a brief stay at Concordia in search of the kind of family time We’d so enjoyed at Maho. But neither can compare to the community, the views and the closeness to nature offered by Maho. We were saddened to see the skeletal tents without their canvas skins and intrigued by the many conflicting rumors floating around the island.. While an upgrading and continuation of Maho under TPL would have been fantastic, it is heartening to learn that Jon Stryker plans to preserve the land. One terrible rumor we heard on island was that he had only bought it to flip it and it was already back on the market. So reading this blog has made us feel so much better. Other things that made us feel better included learning that many of the more recent elements of the trash to treasures program are likely to be continued — the mobile pottery studio in coral bay, discussions with the Westin about the glass blowing project and that one of the glass lowers received a fellowship to start a spinoff program on Tortola and expand it throughout BVI if the pilot works. So what Stanley began, and people like Maggie and Adrian and the staff implemented and improved on, does live on in specific projects and in the ways all of us think and act and teach our children and grandchildren to live.

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