The latest official word on the territory’s largest resort is that Frenchman’s Reef and its smaller sister property on the adjacent Morning Star Beach will reopen in time for the 2022-2023 tourist season.
The two will have a combined room count of 486, including 30 suites; six restaurants and lounges at the Reef and four more at the property on Morningstar Beach; a total of four pools; and a Heavenly Spa by Westin and 13 treatment rooms at Frenchman’s Reef, among other high-end amenities, according to a press release from the management company.
Both St. Thomas properties have been closed since September 2017, when they suffered extensive damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. For decades prior to the hurricanes, they were major players in the island’s tourism economy, and Frenchman’s Reef was one of its largest private-sector employers.
The rebuilding process has been complicated by a change in ownership, construction delays blamed on Covid-related labor shortages, and a drastic downturn in the hospitality industry worldwide in the first months of the pandemic. There have also been branding and name changes, the addition of a proposal to put in breakwaters at the mouth of the bay at Morningstar, and a price tag that has risen dramatically.
The management company for the combined properties, Plano, Texas-based Aimbridge Hospitality, issued a press release early this month saying they will open in “the fall.” Several tourism trade publications have carried stories based on the release.
Company representatives did not reply to several messages this week seeking more detailed information.
The May 2022 release from Aimbridge introduced new names for both properties, calling them “The Westin Beach Resort & Spa at Frenchman’s Reef” and “The Seaborn at Frenchman’s Reef, Autograph Collection.”
The Westin hotel chain is owned by Marriott.
Frenchman’s Reef, which opened in the mid-1970s and has been owned by various hotel chains over its lifetime, has had a long history with Marriott. At various times Marriott has been the resort’s manager, its brand name, or its owner.
“Seaborn” is a new name for the property that island residents have known as “Morningstar” for generations. When the rebuild first started, the owner at that time, DiamondRock Hospitality Company, rechristened it “Noni Beach” after a tropical fruit, but it never operated under that name.
The Westin Beach Resort and Spa and the Seaborn at Frenchman’s Reef are separate from the nearby Marriott’s Frenchman’s Cove, which is a vacation club.
DiamondRock hired Aimbridge in the summer of 2019 to manage the two properties, in anticipation of a 2020 reopening, but that did not materialize. In 2021, DiamondRock sold the two properties to Fortress Investment Group, with a Virgin Islands affiliate called CREF3 USVI Hotel Owner, Inc.
Shortly after the sale, Aimbridge announced it was staying on as the management company, and Kurt Wiksten would be the properties’ managing director. He retains that position, according to the Aimbridge May release.
In February of this year, the Coastal Zone Management division of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources approved modifications to a major permit allowing the resort owners to establish breakwaters at the mouth of the bay at Morningstar Beach, where the water is frequently rough. Proponents told the CZM Committee that they intend to replace sand that was washed away by Irma and subsequent storms.
They also said the actual work on the project will take about four months and was expected to be completed by October, in time for the reopening of the resorts.
The breakwater project still requires federal approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before work can begin. Presumably, the reopening can take place as scheduled regardless of the status of the breakwater project, but that subject was not addressed in the Aimbridge release.
Also unclear are the owner’s intentions regarding a casino. In 2019, Aimbridge said the resorts would employ about 400 people and that there would be a new casino on the property. A release at the beginning of 2022 also mentioned casino space, but the May 2022 release did not mention a casino. Under Virgin Islands law, casinos are not allowed on St. Thomas or St. John, only on St. Croix.
Cost estimates for the rebuild continue to rise. When the rebuild first began, the estimated cost was announced as $200 million. A year ago, when Aimbridge announced it was being retained by Fortress as the resorts’ management company, it referred to a $250 million rebuild. Early this year, the Aimbridge release used the figure of $300 million. The May release talks of “an extensive $350 million rebuild project.”
While the construction project may be the major expense, it is not the only cost. In October, Joe Gould, managing director of Fortress Investment Group, told the V.I. Economic Development Authority Board that the total investment will be more than $402.6 million.
He also said the resorts will contribute $182 million in Virgin Islands tax revenue over the next 10 years and create about 900 jobs. Gould was speaking about the company’s request that Economic Development benefits granted to DiamondRock be extended to the new owners.