With Maho Bay Camps in its last three weeks of operation, owner Stanley Selengut said Thursday he had no real answer to the question on everyone’s lips. Who bought the property now that his lease is about to expire?
“An environmentally oriented billionaire who’s supposedly going to use it as a family estate,” Selengut said, relaxing at Maho’s Pavilion restaurant with his wife Erma and manager Adrian Davis.
While Selengut has that much information, he said he’s a bit hurt that the new owner hasn’t contacted him so they can collaborate on Maho’s closure. The last guests will be gone by May 15, and his staff must find homes for the “millions of dollars’ worth” of soft goods and equipment by June 30 when his lease ends.
Selengut said that, according to his lease, he has to leave behind infrastructure improvements including the 114 tents, the restaurant, the business office, the beach shack and whatever else is attached to the ground.
Unlike the land Maho leased for 37 years from the Giri-Giri Corp., Selengut owns the land under the adjacent Harmony Resort. Those dozen studio apartments will remain, and Selengut said they’ll be used to house staff from Maho’s sister property, Concordia Eco-Resort, or they’ll be rented out.
He’d like to expand on Concordia’s eight eco-studios that are part of the 42-unit property, but Selengut said he’s been unable to get an extension on his existing Coastal Zone Management permit. He said the Planning and Natural Resources Department told him he’d have to start over with a new application, which would cost him about $1 million to go through the process.
Selengut said he’s puzzled as to why his request was denied considering that Maho’s closure will cost the territory what he said was $20 million in lost revenue. He said Maho welcomed 10,000 to 12,000 guests a year, all who needed to take a taxi from the airport, a ferry to St. John, and a taxi or rental car to get to this remote corner of the island. And Maho spent $300,000 a year on trucked water delivery. That money all went to local businesses.
Expanding Concordia would help fill some of that gap.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said of the desired lease extension.
Selengut is at Maho this week to talk about old times with the guests and anyone who happens by. In a far-reaching conversation with the Source, he brought the subject repeatedly back not to the trials and tribulations of running what is essentially a tarted-up campground in the tropics but to what Selengut sees as Maho’s most important contribution.
“The Trash to Treasures program,” he said.
The program got its start by turning old Heineken and Corona beer bottles into simple glass art. However, it’s expanded far beyond that. With the help of guest artists, some of the glass art now goes for big dollars. Glass chips from those bottles now add artistic interest to polished concrete countertops created at Maho. Additionally his staff turned old bed sheets into items such as placemats and handbags by dying and batiking the fabric.
Selengut was a civil engineer by trade who met the Rockefeller family while doing a pro bono consulting job. He said the owners of the Giri-Giri Corp. knew that the Rockefellers operated Caneel Bay Resort on St. John and Little Dix Bay on Virgin Gorda, so they asked the family if they were interested in leasing the property.
Selengut indicated the Rockefellers said no, but an introduction was made. Selengut signed the lease in 1976 and, two years later, he opened up 18 tent flaps to guests.
Selengut said getting the local government to understand his desire to build canvas-walled structures adjacent to a series of connecting walkways that protected the environment from foot traffic wasn’t always easy.
He said St. John residents Noble Samuel and Theodore Moorehead liked the idea and that, once they were behind him, navigating his way through the government got easier. He said that in those days the government allowed him to build slowly so he could fine tune his techniques and put up more tents as funds allowed.
Telling a story from those early construction days, Selengut said he often had to rush around St. Thomas to buy items needed at the campground. He’d get to the Red Hook ferry only to find the boat to St. John had just left.
“When the ferry stopped and backed up for me, I knew I’d arrived,” he laughed.
And he said that back then items delivered to the Cruz Bay ferry dock to await pickup by Maho staff were still there when the Maho truck arrived. That’s not likely to be the case now.
Maho was a smashing success from the get-go thanks to two factors, Selengut said. First, St. John’s Cinnamon Bay Campground was always filled in the winter, and he said the management generously referred people who couldn’t get a reservation to Maho.
Second, The New York Times writer Ralph Blumenthal wrote a story that made the front page of the paper’s travel section, giving Selengut publicity that money can’t buy. He said Blumenthal wrote that while Maho isn’t for everybody, it was a good bet for folks who wanted an environmental vacation.
“It has been very profitable but some of the rewards were more important than money,” he said, speaking about the resort’s focus on the environment and his beloved Trash to Treasures program.
Selengut also made a name for himself in environmental circles, receiving slews of honors and serving a term on the prestigious National Park Service advisory board.
He hosted numerous conferences that included the Building a Destination for All symposium in 2005 that highlighted ways to make St. John more accessible to disabled people.
As for what’s ahead, Selengut and his wife are off on a cruise aboard the Queen Mary that will take them to Europe.
At 84 and with diminishing sight due to macular degeneration, Selengut said he feels it’s time for the two of them to relax a bit. But he’s not ready to quit working for good. He’s still trying to find a home for the Trash to Treasures program. Selengut said he can’t move it to Concordia because that resort doesn’t get enough guests to support it. And since the resort is tucked back off the main road to Salt Pond, there isn’t any foot traffic.
As for his feelings as Maho’s days draw to a close?
“Of course, I’m sad,” he said.