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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.

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!)

 

Never stayed in a Maho Bay tent-cabin?

For the uninitiated, some basic information on Maho Bay Camp will start to fill in the full picture.

I should say from the start, Maho Bay Camp and living in one of their tent-cabins was not for everyone.  My first summer, when working as a 4-hr Volunteer at the Registration Desk, I would greet guests and check them in. After the 10 minute process was complete, I could see the excitement of an adventure light up one person’s face, while their partner’s look seemed to say “I’ll humor you.”  In some instances, those guests trudged back up the steps within the hour, luggage in hand and informed me they were going to checkout and head over to the Westin Hotel.  This loving or running from a Maho tent-cabin was not a gender issue, but a combination of camper vs. non-camper, and whether it lived up to an anticipated fantasy of staying in a cabin near a Caribbean beach!

The tent-cabins were called such because their structural frame was constructed out of lumber: a 16 foot x 16 foot wooden platform, with 2×4’s making up the columns and beams that supported the roof, the counter space, doors, bed and sofa frames and minimal closet space. It is the enclosure material that made it a tent. All “walls” were either nylon screening or a white sheeting (or Stanley Cloth in honor of owner Stanley Selengut). The roof material was similar, a Superwhite vinyl which withstood the tropical climate and reflected the sunlight, keeping the tents a bit cooler by not absorbing the heat during the day.  Originally the tent-cabins were a green canvas, which I associate with the 70’s as being a signature material for tents anywhere! However I imagine the harsh year-round tropical sun combined with long stretches of rain and mildew made that material impractical. The white “Stanley cloth” holds up better on both accounts.

A typical interior - emptied  just before closing - of a tent cabin.
A typical interior – emptied just before closing – of a tent cabin.

The tent-cabins were subdivided into 4 equal quadrants of 8 feet x 8 feet. One was the outdoor porch, one was the bedroom area with two twin beds, and the last two were essentially combined to contain a sofa, extra cot and counter space with a gas stove, dishes and other essentials.  In the photo above, the “soft furnishings” (such as cushions, mattresses and curtains) have already been removed for the closing in May 2013 but it shows the basic structure well. The bedroom is in the back (middle) corner, the porch is on the far right, the sofa in the far left corner, while the kitchen counter space is the closest corner in the photo. You can see the mold that developed on the wood trim outside of the tent-cabin in a few short seasons. Mildew on the PVC was easily cleaned with hydrogen peroxide. But maintenance was ongoing to keep the cabins in shape.

The tent-cabins also had “roll downs”: sheets of the white tent material with a heavier piece of wood attached to the bottom. The wood piece would be secured between wooden pegs on the interior rails in the tents. Every screened section had these roll-downs making it possible to enclose it on all sides. The roll-downs were used for additional privacy on screened-in sections (a bit hot, I preferred sarongs) or to keep the rain out when the wind was blowing it in. Designing a tent-cabin to be open to catch the wind and, at the same time, keep out windblown rain can be tricky. One of the features that I liked best were the various wind-scoops. Some were traditional scoops at the roof line, allowing hot air to escape while capturing the cool trade winds. Others, as you can see along the back wall in the photo above, are simply a canted wall with screening at the base. This provided privacy and kept the rain out while letting the wind come up and through the tent-cabin.

E15 as seen from EVip when I first arrived in 2012.
E15 as seen from EVip when I first arrived in 2012.

There is very little flat land on St. John and most construction is done on a slope. The soil on the island is at most two feet deep and takes a great deal of time to develop. Removing or damaging existing vegetation causes the unsecured soil to run down into the bays during any heavy rains, damaging the fragile coral reefs and ecosystems. At Maho all the tent-cabins and boardwalks were elevated above the soil for that reason. The intention was to preserve, not disturb, the surrounding natural environment. Often the ground dropped off dramatically from one side of the tent to the other. I sometimes refer to these as tree-houses, but nothing was actually built in the trees. I simply felt like I was up in the tree canopy, with tree frogs serenading me after a rain, a view of the ocean below, the tropical trade winds blowing through my tent-cabin and the sounds of rustling leaves and wind chimes just outside.

View of Big Maho Bay from an A-section tent.
View of Big Maho Bay from an A-section tent.

Twenty-three years ago the cabins were same as when Maho Bay Camp closed this past May. ”Each cabin comes equipped with fresh linens, towels, an ice chest, propane stove, pots, pans, necessary utensils and two lizards. If any of these items are missing when you leave, we won’t refund your $30 deposit,”  was what you may have heard when you checked in.  And yes, there were always lizards in the tent on mosquito patrol!  (The link above takes you to a great basic description of Maho Bay Camp. Written in 1990 much of it would still be true, except prices!)