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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.

A Darkened Bay

The area around Maho Bay was always quiet, but now as the island gets ready for “the busy season” it seems eerily lifeless…

September and October are the slowest months here on island. It is when we are most likely to get a hurricane, it is when the cooling trade winds die down and the humidity seems to rise, it is when many business close and spruce up their shops or take a much needed break before the busy season starts. And this year the government shutdown tried to close almost the entire island! (Thankfully the beaches are open again.)

September/October is also when the grocery stores don’t carry as much variety in produce as during the tourist season, or what they have looks like it has been sitting there for a month. Last week I saw that a carton of strawberries costing $10 and they were all rotten. All these issues mean that September & October are good time for locals to take a vacation elsewhere or get creative. Nevertheless we have had a lot of visitors to the island this summer, I would say more than usual. I can recall going to the beach and having it to myself last September! (Big Maho Bay & Cinnamon.) This year the beaches seem to have stayed consistently busy as more people are saving money to visit when it is less expensive to travel here.

The nearly deserted beach at Big Maho Bay in September 2012.
The nearly deserted beach at Big Maho Bay in September 2012.

A vacationer approached me while I was waiting in line at the post office last week. He wanted to ask some questions about living here and I was happy to oblige. He asked the usual questions regarding costs of homes or rent, with some comments that the island needed some other stores. Then he mentioned the cost of groceries and wondered where the locals shopped? Is there a secret store where locals go to pay a better price on their food? I almost laughed out loud, but said “No, we pay the same high prices that you do. Have you filled up your rental car with gas yet? We pay that same high price too!”

Sometimes it takes a while for visitors to understand that everything must be shipped here: food, gas, lumber or concrete for building, cars, clothing, and furniture and as a result they cost more. St. John has the same problem with trash: everything has to be shipped off island to a landfill elsewhere, at great expense. “So you’re saying there are no secret stores that have cheaper goods for locals?” he asked.  I think that would be every islander’s fantasy!!  However the people who live here love the island despite the lack of amenities and even basic goods that most take for granted back home. And we share equally on the things that are inexpensive: locals and visitors pay the same price at Happy Hour, as alcohol is the one thing on island that is not expensive….

This conversation got me thinking about Maho Bay Camp and the people who loved to stay there when they came to St. John. Many of them arrived already understanding that they were living differently than they do at home.  They spent their time in a sort of screened-in porch for the duration of their visit. And that was why many people came back to Maho to stay – for the entirely unique experience that is possible in this climate. It rarely occurred to me to wonder why this minimally developed Caribbean island was not just like where I lived back in the States.  I certainly have missed some of the conveniences, but I came here because there was nothing like this back home. So I expected some differences and made whatever accommodations were necessary to enjoy my time here.

Maho Bay Camp was a great way to visit St. John in an economical way. If guests were willing to sleep listening to the tree frogs and the crashing of the waves (which I preferred anyway) they could save money, and have it for other fun activities or for another visit in the future.

St. John does not need a secret grocery store for locals, or a Marshall’s or Best Buy (I’ve heard that comment), or a fast food joint.  What we need is a diversity of options for people who want to stay here and enjoy the National Park and the rest of the island. One like Maho Bay Camp, where visitors were enveloped in the natural environment and understood more readily the dynamics of living on an island. You might sleep though the rain and thunderstorms in an air-conditioned room at the Westin or in a villa, but not at Maho! And in the morning at Maho you might wake to the pink clouds reflecting the sunrise from the west, later to watch bananaquits eat their breakfast of bowl of sugar near the Dining Pavilion.

So here we are at mid-October. I am noticing small signs that the island is perking up: people are arriving to look for jobs, cars and apartments; business are reopening; I hear live music traveling up the hill to my living room more and more nights; the parking lots in town and at the beaches are getting full; large yachts are showing up out in the bays again, even if only passing by. There is a general buzz beginning as everyone starts getting ready for the arrival of winter.

It was sad to drive home recently along North Shore Road after dark. I stopped at the Maho Bay Overlook.  There was nothing to see. It was pitch black. There was not enough light from the moon to even illuminate the hills around the bay. It was sad to feel this beginning buzz of the upcoming season and see no life whatsoever where Maho Bay Camp lived for so many decades. And all the more so when so many people wanted to keep visiting.

Someone found a hiding place for spare shoes in the E-Section?
Someone found a hiding place for spare shoes in the E-Section?

Changes Afoot!

I haven’t had a post in the last few days because I had to move to another house. It was a bigger project than I anticipated, in part because carrying my stuff down a steep driveway required me to develop a set of brakes while still moving forward.  Besides, it’s hot here right now!  Add to that a broken bed left by the last guests, which I gave an island-fix: a hard plastic igloo cooler with its lid removed is now the fourth bed post.  Needless to say, I bought fixings for a good Gin & Tonic today!

On my way home from Cruz Bay I drove along North Shore Road and stopped to look at the Maho Overlook, as I do probably four out of five times.  It did not take long to notice something had changed: the small white tent roofs were missing in the A-Section closest to Big Maho Beach and only the framing was standing!  Even though I am fully aware that the land is now owned by someone else and that Maho Bay Camp has been closed since June, I still felt a sense of alarm. Something is happening and I don’t know what the plans are!  I rushed back home to put down my thoughts, completely forgetting about my Gin & Tonic, musing as to why this potentially anticipated event bothered me.The two main reasons I felt related to my alarm are two big reasons why Maho Bay Camps was so special to me. 

View of Maho Bay
View from the overlook of the point where Maho Bay Camps was situated along North Shore Road. If you have visited St. John, you probably have your own photo of this very view. The Maho tent-cabins (over 100 of them) are the small white specs you see on the point between the two bays.

Reason One: those basic white tents with only the essentials as furnishings allowed me to move in and make the space mine. During my stay, it felt like home.  I would put up colorful sarongs for some privacy and loved how they waved in the breeze. I would buy candles for the table and hang my bathing suits and hats on the wooden dowels around the bedroom. When I lived there in a staff tent,  I used woven grass mats as carpeting in my room, stapled down to the floor with heavy duty staples, or sometimes over “wall” space, almost like wallpaper.  Often the lights in staff were minimal or non-existent, so white Christmas tree lights would be strung around the top of the rafters to offer some light at night. I suppose not everyone did this, but anyone who felt like making the tent-cabin “theirs” for the duration of their stay could easily decorate it with a handful of thumbtacks and some sarongs.  Home Sweet Island Home!

My bedroom in my staff tent at Maho Bay Camp.
My bedroom in my staff tent at Maho Bay Camp.
I had a gigantic genip tree next to my staff tent.
I had a gigantic genip tree next to my staff tent.

Reason Two: Maho (and St. John) was a place where I came with my family and we all were interested in doing and seeing the same things.  On our first and second visit we were equally excited to discover this tropical island paradise and see it all: on land and under water!  It was great to have a place we all loved to visit together. And once home, we had great memories we shared, having seen and done it all together: finally spotting a turtle or ray at Waterlemon Cay, enjoying a dramatic sunset during dinner, and remembering our first arrival up the bumpy dirt road on Frett’s Safari Taxi and wondering if he was bringing us to the right place!  Had we stayed in a hotel or rented a villa, I don’t think it would have been the same, since too much caters to your lifestyle back home: TV and movies, internet connection, or listening to the drone of the A/C instead of the frogs and crickets and rain on the roof.  Even the difficulties of tent living created some of our shared memories:enduring cold showers on a day that it rained and was cool or waking up in the middle of the night during a downpour to put down the roll-downs and check for leaks. Yes, I am very sentimental about my memories of Maho Bay Camp.

So I look at those tents, now coming apart piece by piece, and I feel like a stranger is taking apart my home.  I suppose feeing some heartache at the sight is to be expected… I remember hearing (maybe my first visit) that the tent-cabins and boardwalks were built so that they could eventually be removed and that it would only take a year for the jungle to grow back and fill in the empty spaces, without damaging the land or the reef below. But I just never considered it would happen so soon.

Tomorrow I will heading over to Big Maho beach for a closer look.