Tag Archives: development

Stanley Selengut, Maho Bay Camp’s Founder

I have been absent lately working on other things, but in the process of working on an upcoming post I found some interesting interviews with Stanley Selengut, the founder of Maho Bay Camp, Harmony Studios and Concordia,  that I wanted to share. Despite having worked there for many years, I never heard him speak much and am always surprised when I see so much attributed to him. My impression of him was almost one of shyness, but he is very personable and revealing in his YouTube video!

The text below is a long excerpt from the September 15, 2008 edition of American Way (magazine of American Airlines), in an article entitled “Paradise Lost?” by Jack Boulware.

DESPITE MAHO BAY CAMPS’ reputation as a green destination, Stanley Selengut says his original vision had little to do with conservation. “I was going to build a little lodge right on the ocean, and a nice old couple would run it. They’d have a little scuba boat and a little sailboat. My friends would visit, I would visit, and if it lost money, who cares, because I could take my vacations as a tax deduction.”

When the news arrived that a New York builder had gotten hold of commercially zoned property, the park superintendent of St. John was irate. He met with Selengut, telling him that development could easily disrupt topsoil, potentially ruining the beaches and coral reefs. Selengut then agreed to construct a pedestrian community, with elevated walkways between the trees so nothing would be destroyed.

“In those days, the way you developed was you clear-cut the land, you built what you wanted to build, and then you landscaped with grass and palm trees,” Selengut says. Instead, he hired a few locals and built a series of 18 tent cabins, inspired by structures he’d seen on a trip to Africa. All the buildings were erected on hand-dug footings in order to minimize impact to the land.

From the beginning, the idea was for Maho Bay to be affordable, not elitist. “That was more of a challenge than the green part,” Selengut admits. “Being green, if you have endless supplies of money and want to charge $600 a night, isn’t that hard. But being green and remaining affordable doubles the challenge.”

Not long after Maho Bay opened, two things happened that completely changed the little camp: Neighboring hotels began to send their overbooked customers to the ecoresort, and a writer for the New York Times came to visit and wrote an article that went on to be reprinted throughout the United States.

“We were full right off the bat,” Selengut remembers. “That gave me the feeling this wasn’t really a toy — there was a real market for what is now called nature-based travel, or ecotourism. So that gave me the encouragement to put some real money into it and make it into a real business.”

As more cabins were built, Selengut’s curiosity about his customers grew. He would send every guest a personal letter with a questionnaire and a postage-paid return envelope addressed to his office in New York. Many of the suggestions he received in those replies came from professional landscapers and botanists and were directly incorporated into the Maho Bay design plan. Other ideas were a little different.

“One guest was an artist who worked in fabric,” Selengut says. “I went down [and found a] worker taking our waste sheets and tie-dyeing them and batiking them and sewing them into stuff. Somebody else found out that a kiln can fire ceramics using pallet wood [as fuel], so we’d go to the dump and get bunches of pallet wood and use it to fire the kiln. And then somebody came up with the idea that we could take the lint from the laundry and mix it with the office paper and water in a blender to make art paper. Every time I go down there, they’re doing something new that sounds like great fun.”

Neat little interview recorded with Stanley Selengut & posted by Audubon Magazine in 2008:

(this was posted five years ago and does not appear to allow embedding, so click on this link to watch it on YouTube!)

 

Here Today. Gone To Maho.

Gathering camp items that would hopefully be reused by local organizations and individuals on St. John as Maho Bay Camps prepared to close.
Gathering camp items that would hopefully be reused by local organizations and individuals on St. John as Maho Bay Camps prepared to close.

“Here today, Gone to Maho”.  I loved that phrase when I first heard staff saying it this past season. It captured everyone’s shared feelings about Maho Bay Camps. Maho is a place that guests and staff alike visited on short notice, season after season. Some came and never left. But it was rare that someone would pass on the chance to come back. Maho pulled all of us here in equal measure and this phrase collectively reflects our devotion to this unique experience.

Here today. Gone tomorrow.  

I came down for the last season at Maho Bay Camps mainly to help. If there was any way to save Maho from closing, I wanted to be a part of it.  Because, quite frankly, being here for the surveyors coming every week, for the slow disintegration of the camp’s infrastructure in this damp tropical environment and the sadness that many felt knowing it was their last visit – being here for that – was not the way I wanted to remember Maho Bay Camps. Nevertheless, the land sold, Maho did close, and I was here to watch as Maho said its last goodbye.

On May 16, 2013 as Frett’s last shuttle delivered the morning’s departing guests to Cruz Bay, Maho’s registration manager radioed out: “The guests are all gone…. Forever.”

Items gathered from Maho Bay Camp's tent-cabins for donation once Maho finally closed.
Items gathered from Maho Bay Camp’s tent-cabins for donation once Maho finally closed.

As much as it could be ‘hidden’ from guests, Maho began dismantling tents prior to the actual closing and collecting everything in hopes to donate to organizations who could use the items. The sheer volume of what Maho had, despite the fact that the tent furnishings were minimal, became apparent as it was all collected in unused guest tents.

I think everyone expected Maho to somehow magically survive… I wished for that too. But intellectually I knew it was destined to close. Despite leaving my life in the States to come back for Maho’s last season, I at times felt as though I was the non-sentimental one… the matter-of-fact bean counter… Maho was sunk. The price was right for someone who could develop one of the most beautiful areas on the North Shore. The asking price for the roughly 13 acres dropped from $32 million to $19 million; clearly the owners felt that they had waited long enough, rebuffed the Trust for Public Land often enough and wanted to hasten the sale of the property. Comparing real estate prices in NYC, as well as those on St.John, this seemed like a bargain to me (big problem is I don’t have that sort of cash!)

And yet. And yet I hung onto every last hope, rumor and long-shot possibility, as did so many others.

 Closed sign placed on the road coming up to Maho Bay Camp's entrance on May 16, 2013.

Closed sign placed on the road coming up to Maho Bay Camp’s entrance on May 16, 2013.

The land sold in December 2012 and much secrecy surrounded the purchase. Everyone wanted to know who the new owner was and what was he or she was planning to do with the purchased land.  Secrets are hard to keep in the Internet Age. And on a small island!  Fairly steady rumors allude to a billionaire conservationist having purchased the land. Personally, I don’t know but I hope the rumors are correct.  A hotel or residential neighborhood would be damaging to the fragile topsoil and nearby coral reef.  As would a large house, if not built with awareness and sensitivity.  I don’t imagine in my wildest dreams that this person plans to reopen the camp (as some have expressed), nor would that necessarily be the best option. But I do think this is a time to look at what Maho Bay Camps and Stanley Selengut (Maho Bay Camp’s founder/owner) accomplished and what we know about sustainability in 2013, along with the important environmental issues of the island, the surrounding coral reefs, and richness of opportunity to incorporate sustainable design in this location. Then some intelligent, forward-looking and sound decisions about what happens next could be shaped.

From a very selfish perspective, I will admit I’d love to have the 21st century version of Swiss Family Robinson: Tree houses in the jungle, connected by boardwalks, safe and nurturing, a home away from home that you do not know you need until you stay there!  Something perfectly sustainable, perfectly in-tune with the challenges presented by this small volcanic island in the Caribbean, while providing a vacation surrounded by the sounds of tree frogs, snorkeling in the turquoise waters and walking the flour-like white sand beaches. All at a price similar to what Maho charged! These are not small requests!  Stanley Selengut had a vision that he reached for and struggled to keep alive for many years. Without another visionary who is committed to the various conflicting demands that a destination like Maho Bay Camps creates, I would at least hope that it is preserved or donated to the VI National Park (if they have the resources to maintain it.)