Op-ed: Congresswoman Responds to Caneel Bay Resort Controversy

Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett (File photo)
Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett (File photo)

One of the true joys I have in being the elected Delegate to Congress from the Virgin Islands of the United States is representing my people who have a proud history of being independent-minded, uniquely resilient, physically and emotionally strong, with an intimate understanding of their history. After the hurricanes of 2017 tore through our home, I consistently highlighted these qualities when speaking to members of Congress and the national media outlets, many of whom continue to be astonished by the fortitude of our people.

Since the late summer and fall of 2017, my staff — both in the Virgin Islands and in Washington — have fought to make legislative and regulatory changes towards ensuring Virgin Islanders whose lives have been upended by these disasters be entitled to every possible federal benefit to which other United States citizens residing on the mainland can receive in similar circumstances.

My offices have provided services and fielded requests from many sectors of our community including residents in public housing facilities and farmers whose livelihoods may depend on the territory securing additional support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

We also heard from teachers and students hoping to experience a sense of normalcy in their classrooms after months of uncertainty in their own homes, and small business owners trying to prevent the loss of their life’s work. We have engaged in legislative negotiations, hearings, phone calls, news interviews, and robust debate to facilitate our rebuilding and growth.

In December of 2017, I introduced legislation in Congress, H.R. 4731, a bill to extend the retained use estate (RUE) for Caneel Bay Resort. The storms essentially destroyed Caneel Bay; but unlike other commercial businesses that also suffered significant damage, the hotel property is situated on federal National Park Service land with only a few years remaining on a long-term lease agreement.

Consequently, any decision by Caneel Bay’s ownership — CBI Acquisitions (CBIA) — to secure and invest the capital needed for a rebuild will likely depend on obtaining federal approval for an extension of its lease agreement.

CBIA seeking an extension to the lease agreement is, of course, to obtain sufficient time to recoup the over $100 million investment and financing they — not the Virgin Islands or federal government — would make in rebuilding the property.

CBIA was already in a five-year negotiation with a federal bureaucracy proven to be unresponsive and unwilling to prioritize a lease negotiation in the Virgin Islands.

For months, the St. John community has extensively debated and discussed the fate of Caneel Bay and that of H.R. 4731. I am certain additional dialogue will take place in the near future. St. Johnians and Virgin Islanders have every right to ask questions about issues affecting their island and the potential impacts of those issues on their lives.

Some people have questioned my motives or the timing for introducing a bill that would seek to assist a business in my district. First, they stated the bill was moving too fast. Then, some questioned how much the resort was paying in rent. Others then opined the rent was insufficient until they learned the funds were paid to the federal government, not the local government. Some questioned the term of the lease agreement, the height of the buildings, and the number of rooms to be built. All are questions that were discussed and negotiated with the resort owner.

Caneel Bay has been a rare and distinct property that is seen as one of the premier resorts in the region, and for decades, a significant driver of the St. John economy, creating jobs for some and memories for others over the years. Has the resort always gotten it right? Of course not. Is there room for CBIA to improve on its future commitment to St. John and its people? Without question. We have had frank conversations with the owner about this, and the company has admitted as much.

Local media and news outlets have also proffered their perspectives with varying degrees of factual accuracy, but nonetheless, have attempted to sway the community in one direction or the other. This is all an expected and integral part of public debate. This process reflects who we are as Virgin Islanders.

As an elected federal official, I have a responsibility to ensure everyone can be heard and can appropriately petition the government, particularly in the aftermath of two category-5 hurricanes that ripped homes, families, and livelihoods apart. But to be clear, one of the tenets of my leadership is to grow a diverse, robust economy for the people of the Virgin Islands, not for a particular individual, special interest group, or a specific private enterprise. I see the rebuilding of Caneel Bay as a 5-star iconic resort as absolutely critical to the economic stability of St. John and the overall tourism portfolio of the Virgin Islands.

To state that I would sponsor legislation to give a developer a financial windfall with no benefit to the people of the territory calls into question my moral compass and questions my intellectual ability. On both counts I take issue.

I note, with interest, the local news outlet’s elevation of the original owner—Lawrence Rockefeller—to a benevolent patrician to the people of St. John shows the paper’s own callous ignorance or indifference to the complicated history and continued pain endured by many St. Johnians in the creation of the National Park.

When all is said and done, the people of St. John and the Virgin Islands will ultimately determine the outcome of Caneel Bay – not me, not the media, and not any sole elected member of the local or federal government.

The fate of Caneel Bay resides with the collective voices and actions of the resort employees, vendors, and taxi owners, who will choose to take either an active or passive role in discussions about the future of Caneel and of their capacity to continue providing for their families.

Make no mistake, the fate of Caneel Bay resides with the decisions of Virgin Islanders and whether they choose to petition the territorial government to elevate this issue as a priority and subsequently a more urgent matter for the federal government as it considers the Island’s ongoing recovery.

In short, any movement in Congress on H.R. 4731, or lack thereof, can and will only be determined by an engaged citizenry of Virgin Islanders out of concern for their well-being and that of the territory. I challenge all of our people to weigh the cost of silence on this issue, essentially ceding your voice to others who might not represent your best interest.

I will continue to listen for those voices and continue to work for the collective good of the entire Virgin Islands community.

Delegate to Congress Stacey E. Plaskett, U.S. Virgin Islands