We are writing to you on behalf of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce. We wish to make a written statement in support of Bill H.R. 4731, to extend the Retained Use of Estate (RUE) for Caneel Bay Resort in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands proposed by V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett.
As you are aware, Hurricanes Irma and Maria dealt a severe blow to the commerce of the Territory. The hospitality industry is central to our economy and bringing back a major hotel as quickly as possible is critical. St. John’s two largest resorts, The Westin a time-share resort and Caneel Bay were severely damaged by the hurricanes. We understand The Westin will not reopen until first quarter 2019, while Caneel Bay’s opening date is uncertain, due largely to the process to extend the RUE.
As the largest employer on St. John, with approximately 450 employees, Caneel Bay brings in more than 15,000 guests and over $75 million in annual spending to the island. That accounts for 7% of total employment in the hotel and restaurant sector of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Given the current state of our hospitality industry, reconstructing and reopening Caneel Bay would provide a critical boost to the economy.
Prompt rebuilding would not only re-establish travel to St. John (and to St. Thomas with day visits from the resort) by that segment of consumers who represent the propensity to spend the most on luxury vacations, but it would also act as an impetus to other USVI properties to expedite their reopening. It would have the immediate benefit of creating a significant number of construction jobs, along with opportunities for ancillary trade and wholesale businesses. As the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, we seek the return to work of not only those hospitality employees affected by the closure of Caneel Bay Resort, but also the workforce employed in restaurants, bars, gift shops and other retail operations and recreational services.
CBI Acquisitions LLC (CBIA) has been the guardian of the Caneel Bay property since 2003 and has respected the historic nature and unique natural reserve that Lawrence Rockefeller intended while operating a first class resort. It has demonstrated they are qualified stewards of this property and cognizant of its responsibilities. Moreover, the RUE contains specific provisions that require CBIA to preserve the general character of Caneel Bay Resort including protecting the natural, cultural, and historic features of the property in the best interests of St. John and the VI National Park.
Furthermore, we have witnessed first-hand CBIA’s involvement in and with the community on St. John in multiple ways; supporting charitable initiatives, annual traditions such as Carnival, local schools and services provided for our senior citizens.
For all the foregoing reasons, including the fact that Bill H.R. 4731 was amended, to set rent at current fair market value, which is periodically revisited, bringing back five-star tourism to St. John as quickly as possible should be the goal. Speaking for large and small businesses throughout the District of St. Thomas and St. John, we are pleased that the Delegate’s legislation has passed the House Committee on Natural Resources, we hope for favorable action going forward on the extension of the RUE agreement with CBIA and urge the support of the entire St. Thomas – St. John community. Sincerely,
Editor’s note: Sebastino Paiewonsky-Cassinelli is the president of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce.