An informal St. John community meeting to discuss a proposal by Cowgirl Bebop, LLLP, to allow a floating bar and restaurant near an offshore cay was held. The gathering contained moments of informed discussion, bitter recriminations, all-at-once conversations and sometimes laughter.
The meeting – held at the Legislative Annex in Cruz Bay on Wednesday evening – was the second opportunity within a week for residents to learn about Cowgirl Bebop.
Cowgirl Bebop has applied to Coastal Zone Management for a minor water-use permit to install two moorings south of Mingo and Grass cays in Pillsbury Sound, the body of water that runs between St. Thomas and St. John. The moorings will be used to secure the restaurant/bar on a barge measuring 110 feet long and 40 feet wide, with docks along three sides for charter boats to tie up to it. The barge will not have an engine and must be towed to a safe location in the event of a storm.
Cowgirl Bebop is designed to be a water-based attraction for charter boats in territorial waters and compete with popular sites in the British Virgin Islands such as the Willy T, a floating bar off Norman Island.
The man behind the proposal is Bill Perkins, a successful fund manager, professional poker player and six-year resident of St. Thomas. He based the concept on the Taw Hai Floating Bar, dubbed “the largest floating bar in Asia,” off Lakawon Island in the Philippines. The name for the project is a mash-up of Perkins’ nickname for his daughter, “Bebop,” and a popular Japanese anime called “Cowboy Bebop.”
Perkins said a “lounge” was better term to describe the business. Cowgirl Bebop would have lounge chairs and a shaded deck, and serve lunch and afternoon snacks in a family-friendly atmosphere.
“The barge will have no discharges and will utilize holding tanks for septic and gray-water wastes. A dedicated support vessel will carry supplies and provide pump-out and refuse collection services,” according to the application prepared by Amy Dempsey of Bioimpact, Inc.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Dempsey said that Cowgirl Bebop would install and maintain eight moorings for vessels to use when patronizing the barge, and to prevent accidents; they will not be encouraging patrons to swim or jump off the barge.
A more formal meeting, chaired by Coastal Zone Management staff, was held on St. Thomas on Nov. 5. Public hearings for minor CZM permits are not required, but CZM officials suggested that St. John residents would like to offer some feedback.
The project’s developers may not have known what they were getting into.
The proposal touched off a heated discussion during which St. John residents questioned the nature of development on St. John and the limited extent to which local people have a say in the island’s future.
When Perkins said the project would provide jobs, Theodora Moorehead pointedly asked, “Who are you going to hire?” suggesting that locals would not benefit from this type of development. “Since the inception of the National Park, everyone who comes here thinks they know what’s best for the Virgin Islands. Your assistance never takes us to another level.”
“The number one problem here is poverty,” said Perkins. “We’re here to help.”
“No disrespect,” countered Lorelei Monsanto, who facilitated the town meeting, “but don’t go into anyone’s community and say there’s poverty. He has stepped on my corn,” she told the crowd.
“We have our own ideas of what we need,” shouted another resident to Perkins. “Maybe you should be softer in your approach.”
Monsanto continued to pepper Perkins with questions. She asked him if he would apply for Economic Development Commission benefits. Perkins said he would not. She said the preliminary fees assessed for his use of the submerged lands was too low and needed to be increased.
“I don’t disagree,” Perkins answered
Ron Vargo, a resident on the east end of St. John, brought up Lime Out, a floating taco bar that has generated controversy because of its location in a pristine bay which is a Designated Restricted Area. Lime Out is towed to its Hansen Bay location daily because its owners have not yet secured a permanent, 24-hour mooring permit.
“First it’s the Lime Out; then it’s Cowgirl Bebop. What’s next?” said Vargo. “We’ve had a firsthand view of floating bars; the owners can try, but they cannot control their patrons’ reckless behavior. Our golden goose is our unspoiled beaches and waters.”
Several residents expressed fears that the party atmosphere on the barge would lead to alcohol-induced accidents.
Cowgirl Bebop will have a family-friendly atmosphere, according to Alex Golubitsky, an attorney who represented the project at the meeting.
“It will not be a floating frat party,” he said. “We’re not trying to be the Willy T.”
Not everyone at Wednesday’s meeting was against the proposed project. Dane Tarr, one of the owners of Lime Out, asked people to remain open-minded regarding Cowgirl Bebop. “I know most people who are here are probably opposed to us, but when we move Lime Out each night, it’s like we were never there. These [floating bars] are actually low impact compared to building a house.”
Niyah Potter, who identified herself as the only female, native St. Johnian who is working as a charter captain, said she liked the idea of Cowgirl Bebop for her guests who don’t swim, are handicapped or simply want a new place to visit. “Please don’t nail me to the cross, but I can only show them so many beaches. I have eight hours to entertain these people. What do you suggest?”
“Another bar? Is that the answer?” someone shouted back.
Towards the end of the meeting, David Silverman, a member of the St. John Board of the Coastal Zone Management, spoke as a private citizen.
He said there were several faults regarding the permit application. First, the project was erroneously assigned to the St. Thomas district when it should have been assigned to St. John because of its proposed location.
Second, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources made a mistake when they told the developers of Cowgirl Bebop the project would only require a minor water-use permit. “The placement of a non-powered barge on the Tier-One coastal waters, and attaching that barge on a semi-permanent basis to a mooring in the seabed, is not within the enumerated list of activities eligible for a CZM minor water permit,” Silverman said.
“For this reason, although the moorings are eligible for a minor use permit, the barge itself is a structure, as defined in the CZM code, which is attached to something located in the submerged lands, and therefore requires a CZM major water permit,” Silverman said.
Major CZM permits require a public hearing conducted by the local CZM board. Although Marlon Hibbert, the CZM director, sat in on the two public meetings held so far, neither meeting counts as an official hearing.
On Thursday, attorney Golubitsky said he considered Wednesday’s meeting “a good start to the dialog. There were certain instances during the meeting when things became more contentious than we would have liked, but there is nothing that doesn’t make us think the project was viable.”