This is the second in a three part series on St. Johnians’ views on the future of development on their home island. The first in the series focused on St. Johnians’ thoughts on infrastructure improvement and environmental preservation in Coral Bay, where two large marina developments have been proposed. In this second installment, St. Johnians reflect on economic opportunities that could come with a marina development.
St. Johnians Say Coral Bay is Underdeveloped
A new marina brings with it the promise of jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities. This is frequent refrain at public meetings about development proposals for the island.
The governor, the majority of senators, and several prominent St. Johnians have cited the growth of employment as one of the major reasons for their support of the proposed St. John Marina at Summer’s End in Coral Bay.
“I am in support of a marina in the Coral Bay area; we need employment,” said Sen. Steven Payne, the only senator who currently resides on St. John. Payne said he is often approached by people who ask for jobs, particularly since the closing of Caneel Bay Resort in 2017. “I have known people who want to open a boat engine repair shop, a kayak business, a laundromat after the marina is open,” he said.
Chaliese Summers, one of the developers of Summer’s End, a major marina proposal for Coral Bay, said she estimates the marina development will provide 80 direct and indirect long-term jobs and an additional 362 jobs from “initial employment impact.”
However, some generational St. Johnians question whether the jobs at a marina will truly benefit native St. Johnians.
“The senators say local St. Johnians need [jobs]. I’m for St. Johnians getting jobs. But what type?” Moriah Jacobs said. “My father (John Jacobs Jr.) left in 1936 because he didn’t want to work at Caneel Bay Plantation watering the grounds or cleaning toilets. Other St. Johnians left, too – Albert Sewer, Guy Benjamin. They left because the jobs here weren’t any good. What is Summer’s End promising in terms of jobs? Let’s get the details. Let’s ask them, ‘Are you going to hire and train them to be mechanics and managers?’ I think they’ll be relegated to cleaning floors and cleaning boats. Are they going to be managing? I don’t think so.”
Theodora Moorehead, who also returned to the island after leaving for education and career opportunities, said she’s suspicious of claims of skilled jobs based on what she’s seen at other marinas on St. Thomas. “There’s no abundance of [native Virgin Islanders] working at the marinas on St. Thomas, certainly not at Yacht Haven. Those [mega] yachts come with their service people – chefs and maintenance crews – on board.”
Community activist Lorelei Monsanto characterized the promise of marine-based jobs as a fallacy. “First and foremost, the youth are not taught about the marine industry – how to put fiber glass on a boat, how to do wood work – so everybody [with those skills] comes from the States and finds jobs,” she said.
The problem stems from an absence of vocational training programs within the Department of Education, according to several people interviewed for this article. Forty years ago, Charlotte Amalie High School had a robust vocational arts program; St. John students often chose to attend Charlotte Amalie High School to enroll in these courses rather than attend Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, the closer of the two public high schools on St. Thomas. (There is no public high school on St. John.)
For several years, Kean High School (in Red Hook) offered a marine program that provided instruction in a variety of marine-related skills and resulted in eight students restoring a sailboat and participating in the prestigious Rolex regatta in 2009.
It’s unclear whether some form of the marine program is still offered in the public schools. In 2018, that program’s instructor, Stan Lorbach, brought his teaching expertise to My Brother’s Workshop, a non-profit organization which targets at-risk youth. That program now offers training in fiber glassing, rigging, plumbing, electrical systems, welding, carpentry, and diesel engine repair.
Janet Burton questioned whether Virgin Islands students were being trained to become entrepreneurs. “Assistance would be needed from the ground up to orient children to a business mentality. Students need to be introduced to business in elementary school,” she said.
Junior Achievement U.S.V.I. offers programs for students at all grade levels to acquire skills in business, personal finance, and economics. Their programs supplement the courses offered by the V.I. Department of Education.
Burton wants to see small businesses that are owned by local entrepreneurs thrive in Coral Bay, but in order to reach this goal, “The Department of Education’s curriculum would need to be revamped to have stronger focus on vocational classes in the St. Thomas/St. John District from which students could move from graduation to an apprenticeship situation, or higher education with the goal of becoming an entrepreneur.”
She sees some opportunity as the Dept. of Education develops its New Schools Construction plan. “One of the high schools in St Thomas, or a new one – since lots of money is available for education now – could be a vocational school with an emphasis on preparing students for entrepreneurship/apprenticeship,” she said.
Burton said she would also like to see the re-opening of a University of the Virgin Islands’ satellite campus on St. John which operated from 2010 to 2015. “The St. John Academic Center, when it was up and running, provided office space for the V.I. Small Business Development Center. Hopefully both will return to continue their useful and much needed education,” she said.
St. Johnians Envision a Marina for Coral Bay
In recent decades, Coral Bay has earned a reputation for being small, quiet, and unspoiled. Scattered around the harbor are a couple of dozen restaurants and small shops, two food markets, and a dinghy dock that has been in existence since Danish colonial times.
There are few services for boaters except for Coral Bay Marine which offers engine repair, parts and service, and provides limited space for boaters to haul, paint, repair and store their boats.
In the late 1980s, a group of St. Johnians announced the construction of a boat yard in Coral Bay, going as far as to install a Travel-Lift, but that plan languished. Since then proposals have been put forth to provide more comprehensive marine services to serve the community in Coral Bay and visitors who arrive by sea.
A plan for a marina on the north side of the harbor, known as T-Rex or Sirius, has been in the works for at least 20 years. Their marina development plan calls for the construction of 90 wet slips, retail space, and various services for boaters as well as a 90-unit condominium complex along the shoreline. This project is planned for land owned by the Moravian Church Conference.
A proposed marina for the south side of the harbor, known as the Yacht Club at Summer’s End/St. John Marina, calls for the construction of 144 wet slips as well as retail development and a facility for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. This project is planned for land largely owned by generational St. Johnian families.
Neither has made it through the territorial and federal permitting requirements necessary to begin construction.
Although each plan has its proponents, both have been criticized as being out of scale (see Part One of this series.)
T-Rex has faced pushback for its plan to place 90 condominiums on the “the flats” in Coral Bay, an area that has been used as a public space for various purposes since colonial times.
When Summer’s End was first proposed in 2014, it was marketed as an upscale marina for mega-yachts and included plans for luxury rentals and high-end shops like Gucci and Prada. Some St. Johnians questioned whether Coral Bay was the right location for this type of development. “Who’s going to come to Coral Bay to buy a Gucci bag?” said Lorelei Monsanto.
“I do think we need a marina where boaters can buy supplies and fuel and dispose of their waste,” said Savannah Lyons Anthony, one of the younger St. Johnians who expresses her views on social media. “But I don’t think we need anything that mirrors Yacht Haven Grande [a marina/shopping center on St. Thomas.] “We need something that embodies our character, which has a friendliness, a quietness, a subtlety that is not reflected in major designer brands or huge mega-yachts.”
In the past several years, the developers of Summer’s End have scaled back the land portion of the development. However, plans for the marina portion still require the use of more than 27 acres of submerged lands. Critics of the project feel the footprint is too large.
“Both plans are too big for the island,” said Monsanto. At public meetings, the developers of the two marina proposals have stated that their project’s proposed size is necessary to make them economically viable.
Ernest Matthias, a boat captain with years of experience in watersports management, envisions for Coral Bay “a nice, small-scale marina, with room for 25 to 50 boats at the most; a place where you can haul out a boat and fix it; where you can fill your boat with gas and diesel; and where you can clear Customs.” Matthias’ wish list also includes a desalinization plant to produce potable water, and a sewage treatment plant that has the capacity to process wastewater to the degree that it can be used to water plants.
Matthias would like to make sure that whatever is built provides opportunities “for local kids to learn marine trades and management skills” and be “neat, clean, and well-maintained.” He doesn’t see a problem with two or more small-scale marinas being built in partnership with St. Johnian landowners.
Warren Wells Jr., who grew up in Coral Bay and now resides in Atlanta, said plans must address environmental concerns, including processing waste and selling fuel. He would like to see a boardwalk installed along the harbor that extends from Sea Breeze, on the south side, to Skinny Legs on the north side. “You don’t have to take away the mangroves. They have a role to play. It’s a unique landscape.”
Wells said well-planned development will create opportunities for St. Johnians, adding, “They have to be part of the equation.”
In the third and final part of this series, St. Johnians reflect on long-standing land ownership and cultural preservation issues on St. John and how they relate to proposed developments.