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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!)

 

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.)