NPS Trying To Work Out Caneel Bay Resort’s Future At Virgin Islands National Park
By Kurt Repanshek – December 6th, 2020 2:00am
Closed-door talks between top Interior Department officials and the operators of the storm-battered Caneel Bay Resort at Virgin Islands National Park seem poised to move forward a path the National Park Service set in 2013 to see the resort operated as a concession owned by the federal government.
Rob Wallace, Interior’s assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, visited St. John recently to walk the grounds of the resort pounded by back-to-back hurricanes in September 2017 and to meet with Gary Engle, the principle behind CBIA, LLC, which has operated Caneel Bay since 2004.
Supposedly the two came to at least a verbal agreement to let Park Service contractors determine the extent of environmental contamination on the resort grounds, a determination that could guide the terms of a long-term lease. However, neither Wallace nor Park Service officials would comment on the matter.
The long-term role of CBIA at Caneel Bay could be murky. Engle in the past has tried to be freed of any cleanup costs associated with environmental contamination. Plus, the resort for all practical purposes reportedly isn’t operational at this point, as no substantive repairs have been made since hurricanes Irma and Maria struck in 2017.
The law Congress passed in 2010 pertaining to the long-term operational fate of Caneel Bay specified that once the Retained Use Estate that CBIA has been operating under expires in September 2023, CBIA “shall transfer, without consideration, ownership of improvements on the retained use estate to the National Park Service” unless a lease agreement is finalized. As a result, the question arises as to what position the Park Service and CBIA would be in if efforts to negotiate a long-term concessions lease fail and CBIA simply walks away at the end of the RUE?
The 2010 law does allow CBIA to transfer its right to a lease to another party, but only with the Interior secretary’s approval.
Todd Sampsell, president of Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, said Friday that he was aware of Wallace’s visit but didn’t receive a full briefing on the negotiations.
“They just assured us that there was no secret deal,” Sampsell said. “But they confirmed that they were on Caneel and we know that Gary Engle was on the island at the time.”
Sampsell said the park superintendent, Nigel Fields, told him Thursday night that they “have essentially gotten to the point of an agreement on a term sheet that would allow the Park Service to at least begin the environmental assessment work. He described it to me as being nonbinding at this point, and the work that they would need to do would take them probably to at least May. In his mind, that needs to happen before they can do the (appraisal) for a lease to be able to actually finalize an agreement.”
Sampsell said he expected to get a formal briefing from Fields when that agreement is announced. “That could be as quickly as in the next day or two,” he added.
Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association, said it was her understanding that the announcement would be “just a statement that they are working towards a lease.”
The 2010 law allows for a lease of up to 40 years. Engle in the past has sought a 60-year extension of the RUE, saying such a timeframe was necessary to entice investors. He also has said he needed about $100 million to rebuild the resort.
But should the Park Service agree to a lease with a tony resort charging $600 or more a night, or strive to see more affordable lodging that would give more visitors the opportunity to actually stay inside the park? They’re not being locked out of visiting the national park, as there are less expensive properties on St. John, ranging from Airbnb and “villas” with rates that fluctuate through the year to motels, but many visitors traveling to the National Park System prefer the experience of staying inside a park.
“I struggle personally with that because I’ve got members of my own board that say we need a high-end, five-star resort back on Caneel,” said Sampsell. “As a conservationist, that really bothers me a bit. But, I would say we’ve talked to several parties that would be really interested in working with the Park Service, redeveloping Caneel, looking at how could it better serve the community here, provide more public access, be more sustainable, and still be a revenue generator for a leaseholder.”
Traveler has been told there is no shortage of companies in the hospitality industry that would bid for the Caneel property if the Park Service opened it to competitive bidding, and Sampsell said the same.
“In the conversation I had with the (NPS) regional director, he said there’s been everybody from private investment individual partnerships to global hotel chains expressing interest,” said Sampsell. “There’s no shortage of interest if they were to be creative and open that up to a competitive process.”
But first, he said, the extent of environmental contamination needs to be determined.
“That should have already been done. And frankly, that’s going to help inform what the future needs to look like,” he said.
But Sampsell also voiced support for seeing the Park Service let the RUE expire in September 2023 and opening up the bidding process to more companies.
“I guess my question is, would waiting until 2023 and opening it to a more competitive process, would that really be a bad thing at this point?” he said.