At their monthly meeting Friday, members of the Magens Bay Authority board fielded questions and suggestions ranging from why locals should have to pay to get into the beach to how to think out of the box relative to a radically changed relationship with tourism and cruise ships.
On the question of the fee for entry, some participants supported what was called a nominal fee that supports the pristine state of the park and amenities such as bathhouses and sheds and lifeguards and groundskeepers, which are not offered at most other beaches in the territory. But another participant claimed that some unrevealed “grandfather” stipulation overrides the deed and other legal instruments that have been in place since the beach and adjacent land were deeded to the people of the Virgin Islands in 1943. According to the comment, that should allow all those calling themselves locals to gain entrance for free.
Early in the meeting, chairwoman Katina Coulianos explained that the park’s rules and regulations and procedures are well established in law and bound by the deed of conveyance and further established by various legal opinions made over the years that found no conflict between the open shorelines act and charging admission to the park.
“We are allowed to collect fees and we are going to charge fees,” she said, adding the fees are necessary to support all of the mentioned conveniences.
Another issue that took center stage was related to the park’s relationship with and to the territory’s dependence upon tourists and the dollars they bring.
At least two participants encouraged the board to be “pandemic proactive” relative to the potential return of cruise ships. The August board meeting had no public participation, likely due to the unfamiliar Zoom procedure. At that meeting a trio of tour operators floated the idea of creating a zone on the beach which would be for the exclusive use of Disney Cruise line passengers.
The proposal was tabled and has met with substantial push back from the community.
About $400,000 per year for Magens comes from gate fees. Because of the worldwide pandemic, cruise ship arrivals and overnight visitors have been slowed, and hotels have yet to reopen since the hurricanes of 2017. Thus, the larder is dangerously bare, which some worry could cause bad decisions due to financial panic.
The cash-flow shortages caused the authority to extend the hours during which fees are collected by an hour and a half a day, which is also creating pushback from some in the community. Coulianos explained that since Magens employees work split shifts from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., the beach is open. Prior to the recent changes, entrance fees were collected between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. That has changed to 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in an effort to offset some of the financial losses.
Magens Bay Authority board member Barbara Peterson was clear in response to one participant’s suggestion that the authority cut back on its expenses. With 80 percent of the budget allotted for personnel, Petersen said, the only way to do that would be to lay off, fire or reduce salaries for personnel.
The Magens Bay Authority was established in the 1940s to meet the criteria set out by Arthur Fairchild when he deeded the beach, which was among the 10 most beautiful in the world, according to National Geographic.
As to the concerns about letting anyone but the authority dictate how the park is used, local environmentalist Jason Budsan at Friday’s meeting called for the board to set the parameters for the ships rather than letting the cruise lines dictate the terms.
“Take the leadership role,” he said.
Another participant expressed concern for the safety of beachgoers. A participant who identified herself as a CPR instructor for the American Red Cross made several suggestions about how lifeguards could be more prepared for rescue and life support if there were more defibrillators and quicker modes for getting to swimmers who might be in trouble. Board members were quick to agree, but again noted the extreme loss of cash flow they are facing.
Magens Bay is one of only two beaches in the St. Thomas-St. John district that employs lifeguards, the other being Smith Bay on St. Thomas’s east end, which is also under the MBA umbrella and also charges an entrance fee. No lifeguards are employed at any other public beaches on St. Thomas or St. John, according to Commissioner of Sports, Parks and Recreation Calvert White.
And while the other dozen or so easily accessible beaches in the St. Thomas-St. John District – theoretically if not always actually – receive government-supported services, Magens Bay parks, which includes Smith Bay Park and Drake’s Seat, receive no appropriation from the V.I. government.
Many of Friday’s three dozen participants expressed a desire to volunteer or offered suggestions as to how to raise more money for the pristine park. One, Suzi Grbinich, wondered if the board had considered setting up a friends of Magens Bay organization that could offer help to the board.
Board secretary Elliot “Mac” Davis said he had been promoting that idea for many years and as a result had developed a model for articles of incorporation that he said he would be happy to make available to anyone who might be interested.
Magens Bay General Manager Hubert Braumant asked that anyone wishing to obtain the articles or other public documents related to the park’s operation call first so the employees can have the documents readily available.
Asked a second time, later in the meeting by a different participant about a possible disconnect between the “grandfathered” issue and fees, chairwoman Coulianos said, as she had explained early in the meeting, the deed and the creation of authority by the Municipal Council in 1946 conveyed all decision to the authority in perpetuity. Furthermore, she said the matter was brought to the then-attorney general in 1977, who opined there was no conflict between the open shoreline statute and the charging of entrance fees.
“Forty-three years ago the attorney general confirmed that,” Coulianos said.
All members of the Magens Bay Authority attended the virtual meeting, along with general manager Braumant and business manager MemorieAnne Brown-Callender, who conducted the Zoom process.