The number of business operators authorized to conduct small businesses within the Virgin Islands National Park has dropped from 215 in 2017 to 110 in 2018, park officials announced at a town meeting Wednesday night.
The sharp decrease, a result of destruction caused by Hurricane Irma in September 2017, was one topic under discussion at the meeting hosted by Delegate-to-Congress Stacey Plaskett. The three-hour meeting was called to address employment concerns, including the closing of a hotel and campground, as well as other issues that have arisen in the park since the storm.
Taxi drivers, tour operators, wedding officiants, photographers, and paddle board rental companies are among those who must acquire commercial use authorization, or CUA’s, to operate within the park, according to Steve Black, acting superintendent of the Virgin Islands National Park.
“It’s not difficult. It’s just paperwork,” said Black.
To help familiarize the community with the application process, the Park Service will hold a seminar sometime around January on St. John, said Caribbean Parks Superintendent Randy Levasseur, who oversees NPS operations on St. John, St. Croix, and Puerto Rico.
Levasseur said a meeting was held on Tuesday on St. Croix to encourage local businesses to apply for CUA’s.
“We have six [National Park] sites on St. Croix, but no one currently holds a CUA there,” Levasseur said. “There are now 54 CUA holders in San Juan conducting tours of the historic forts. We’d like to have people come in to give guided tours of the fort in Christiansted and of the artifacts dug up as part of the Slave Wrecks Project funded by the National Park System.”
CUA’s are limited to businesses where services begin and end within the park with earnings of less than $25,000. Businesses which bring in higher earnings must apply for a license or operate under another agreement, like the Retained Use Estate by which Caneel Bay Resort operates.
Anyone doing business in the park must obtain some kind of license. This applies to a commercial operator of a boat that uses park waters and to a taxi driver who stops to show passengers a view from a North Shore overlook, according to Elba Richardson, concessions management specialist with the VINP. Licensing fees range from $750 for large, land-based tour companies, to $75 for an individual taxi driver.
Problems facing Virgin Islanders applying for NPS jobs
After a several-months process, a job for a park guide within the Virgin Islands National Park was listed Friday on USA Jobs, the Federal Government’s employment website. By Monday, one hundred applicants had applied, and the position was closed to other applicants as mandated by federal regulations.
The position was never advertised locally, and Virgin Islands residents didn’t hear about the opening unless they happened to be looking on the site that day or had set an alert to trigger an email to them.
National Parks are required to use USA Jobs to fill openings and are not allowed to use federal funding to advertise for positions, but participants at Wednesday’s meeting suggested alternatives to inform the local public of openings. Plaskett asked VINP officials to notify her office when a position is about to become available, so her office can send out a press release. Park officials can also go on the radio to announce that a job will soon become open.
Rachel McKinley, who once worked as a lifeguard for the VINP, said job seekers should fill out a profile online at Jobs USA and set an alert to be notified whenever an opening becomes available in the Virgin Islands.
Joe Kessler, president of the Friends of the Virgin Island National Park, said park officials can sometimes obtain a waiver for a particular job requiring that the applicants live within commuting distance, but Concessions Management Specialist Elba Richardson said the federal hiring process was complicated.
In the federal system, applicants are ranked on a point system according to their knowledge, skills, and experience, among other things. Veterans, especially injured veterans, are given extra points that help them to qualify for consideration. The number of veterans seeking positions has increased since the start of the war in Afghanistan, so an outstanding local applicant who is not a veteran may not make it into the pool of candidates under consideration.
“Federal jobs have always been sought after, but filling them can often take between four and eight months,” Levasseur said. “We want to hire locals, but we haven’t had many openings. Since the hurricane, a number of people have left the park, and openings are now available.”
The VINP once had as many as 80 employees; it now has fewer than 35, according to Richardson. The VINP operates on a budget of between $5.1 and $5.3 million and has not received a significant increase in several years, so hiring has been limited.
Up until several years ago, the park was allowed to directly hire students for entry-level positions within the park through the Student Temporary Employment Project, according to Steve Black, acting superintendent of the VINP. Under a similar initiative, one person was recently hired for a position with the Park Service on St. Croix.
Concession opportunities to open soon
In the spring, the VINP will take applications to operate the water sports concession at Trunk Bay. On a busy day, as many as 1,500 visitors may descend on Trunk Bay, and many of them will need snorkel gear and other equipment.
Paradise Aqua Tours acquired a three-year permit to operate a water sports rental shop, but their permit expires next fall.
The snorkel gear rental shop is the only business operating at Trunk Bay. Discussions are underway to bring in food trucks.
There is still no phone service at Trunk Bay, so credit card sales cannot be processed.
Park officials said the VINP is considering hiring lifeguards for Trunk Bay under a commercial use agreement. Training and retaining lifeguards has been a challenge, especially as the only certified trainer in the area is no longer offering that service.
Two people have died on Trunk Bay in the past two weeks.
“How many people have to drown before you find the money” to hire lifeguards, asked taxi driver Merv Powell at Wednesday’s meeting.
Levasseur said that at least one death was not technically the result of a drowning but was caused by a heart condition. The autopsy for the more recent death has not been completed.
He said that the majority of deaths occurring at Trunk Bay involved passengers from cruise ships, and the park was now considering requiring tour operators to provide their own lifeguards, “just as you would be required to hire extra security if you were to put on a concert in a national park.”