Within a month, the National Park Service will be sharing a summary of the more than 700 comments that were submitted to the NPS concerning the future of the Caneel Bay Resort, according to Nigel Fields, superintendent of the Virgin Islands National Park.
The comments were collected as part of a process conducted by the Park Service to determine whether the hurricane-ravaged resort within the Virgin Islands National Park should be rebuilt when the property reverts to full control by the Park Service in 2023.
The resort property has been under private management since the park was created in 1956; the current Retained Use Estate holder, CBI Acquisitions, has restricted almost all access to the 150-acre property since 2017 when Hurricane Irma destroyed many of the resort’s structures.
The lack of public access has been one of the main concerns expressed in the comments, according to Fields.
Fields made his remarks during a 90-minute panel discussion broadcast on WTJX Channel 12 last week titled “Caneel For the People: Re-Imagining Public Spaces.” The discussion is available to the public on Facebook.
The program was moderated by Hadiya Sewer, a research fellow at Stanford University and the co-founder of St. JanCo, the St. John heritage collective that seeks to preserve the identity, history and culture of St. John’s people.
Much of the discussion focused on the process implemented by the Park Service to gather input from community members, visitors, and Virgin Islanders who live outside of the territory.
Several of the panelists said that a significant portion of the community has been left out of the process, partly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Park Service has largely relied on online platforms for disseminating information and collecting comments because of restrictions on public gatherings during the last two years.
Panel member Steven Payne, the at-large senator from St. John, has been working with other community leaders to advocate for an extension of the comment period, which ended March 4.
Payne said that 90 percent of nearly 200 St. John residents (surveyed recently by his colleagues) said they did not have enough information to make informed comments.
He cited federal law stating, “the (U.S.) Secretary of the Interior is authorized and directed to the maximum extent feasible to employ and train residents of the Virgin Islands to develop, maintain, and administer the Virgin Island National Park.”
The V.I. National Park has not done enough to involve Virgin Islands residents in the process of charting the future of Caneel, nor has it promoted Virgin islanders into leadership roles overall, Payne said.
Panelist Edmund Roberts, a native St. Johnian who worked for the Park Service for 37 years, said he had not been mindful of the process underway to chart Caneel’s future. He said he had a real love for the Park Service, and he might have participated more if he had paid more attention to the media after he retired.
In response to these remarks, Fields said the Park Service perceived the degree of community involvement differently, citing meetings with church groups and community organizations. “Whenever we’re invited, we go … We have been pleased by the engagement. We have heard from St. Johnians, Virgin Islanders, as well as the broader community,” he said.
Fields said the Park Service held online meetings in the spring of 2021, resulting in a wide range of suggestions that can be incorporated in the plan, including opportunities for local hiring, better corporate stewardship, increased protection of cultural and natural resources, partnerships with the University of the Virgin Islands, and environmentally sustainable practices which anticipate the effects of climate change.
He said participants have called for the construction of facilities to benefit the community including a cultural center, theater, hurricane shelter, and parking structure.
Another panelist, Crystal Fortwangler, a professor at La Roche University and creator of the film “Our Island, Our Home,” particularly objected to the four alternative plans which the Park Service developed and presented to the public, three of which include a major resort.
Fortwangler said the larger issue of de-colonization should be considered, and the entire process should be halted until Virgin islanders are hired to create the preliminary alternatives, and studies of V.I. National Park management practices are completed. She cited a 1994 executive order for environmental justice calling for minority and low-income communities to have access to public information and public participation in a meaningful way. “That has not transpired,” she said.
Fields said the four alternatives for Caneel presented so far were preliminary, and there would be ample time to modify them as the plans move forward.
The Park Service is still awaiting a report on contamination that took place at Caneel Bay during its 65 years of operation. That report is expected this summer, and Fields said the public would have a chance to make comments after it is published.
“In the fall, we’ll summarize everything that we’ve heard, demonstrate how we analyzed several environmental factors, and lay out again what we’re looking at as alternatives. We’re hoping to build much more engagement over time,” Fields said.
During the panel discussion, Kurt Marsh, an architect and co-founder of St. JanCo, said his vision for Caneel included “beautiful new architecture of the likes we’ve never seen in the territory;” yet as an indigenous St. Johnian, he wanted to see the space preserved as much as possible. “There’s a beautiful opportunity to have both of these things marry,” Marsh said.