Halloween should be especially thrilling this year for Mark Snider, the managing partner of the proposed Lovango Resort and Beach Club. That’s the day his company is scheduled to complete the purchase of 40 acres on Lovango Cay, a 118-acre island between St. Thomas and St. John.
If the closing goes as planned, and if negotiations are successful with the V.I. Economic Development Commission, Snider and his team will construct the first new resort in the Virgin Islands in almost 20 years. There will be 14 homes, each with five bedrooms that can be rented individually for a total of 70 bedrooms.
Long-time residents of the territory may roll their eyes at the notion of building a hotel on the island, knowing that big plans to develop small cays off St. Thomas have been met with little success in the past couple of decades.
Snider, however, has several things working in his favor, including extensive experience developing and managing resorts on islands, and a low-density vision for development that suits the scale of a small offshore cay.
Perhaps more important, he has a plan to enhance what’s already built on Lovango Cay to create a destination that could partially open as early as February.
Joining this venture is John Ferrigno, the chef that launched Zozo’s, the upscale restaurant that most recently operated out of the Sugar Mill at Caneel Bay Resort; that restaurant thrived until Hurricane Irma destroyed the property in 2017.
The Lovango developers plan to begin operations by opening Zozo’s H2O in a structure already built on Lovango Cay. This coming February they intend to serve lunch and cocktails, mostly to guests arriving in private and charter vessels.
Offshore ventures that offer food and drink, such as PiZZA Pi (anchored in Christmas Cove off Great St. James island) and the Lime Out (anchored in St. John’s remote Hansen Bay) have proved to be wildly popular with boaters, and a restaurant created by Ferrigno is bound to become a destination.
The plan is to operate the Zozo’s H2O until June, then close down and reopen in December as part of a larger club facility with a beach, changing rooms, water sports activities and eventually a swimming pool and fitness center.
The club will be open to the public with boat service from Cruz Bay and possibly St. Thomas.
“You can join by the day, week, month or season,” Snider said.
Unlike Hans Lollick and Thatch Cay, undeveloped islands that have been targeted in the past for large-scale developments, Lovango already has a small community of residents who are all members of a home owners’ association.
There are now 10 dwellings on Lovango, four of which were severely damaged by the hurricane, and three full-time residents. Most of the dwellings have been occupied by “snow birds,” part-time residents who spend the winter on the islands, according to Dan Boyd, one of Lovango’s year-round residents.
Lovango also has infrastructure to support independent island living, including a passenger dock and a barge dock, and a reverse-osmosis water production facility. Most of the homes have aerobic septic systems, generators and solar energy equipment.
Snider plans to expand the water production facility and barge the trash off island. He has already received a minor permit from Coastal Zone Management to upgrade the necessary infrastructure at Zozo’s H20 to accommodate the public for day visits.
Acquiring permits for the development of the beach club and hotel portions of the plan will be much more complicated. Residents of St. Thomas and St. John have historically been leery of offshore developments, citing environmental concerns. The community will have a chance to weigh in during public hearings held by Coastal Zone Management once the resort proposal is complete. The CZM board for St. John must approve the proposal, which will then be sent to the Legislature and the governor for approval.
If the sale scheduled for Oct. 31 goes through as planned, Lovango Resort and Beach Club will control 40 acres comprised of multiple sites located primarily on the east end of the island. Most of the sites are now owned by a trust in the name of Joseph John Markus and by those who have purchased parcels from that trust. Snider said he would provide a detailed map of the property once the deal has closed.
The island is zoned R-1, according to Snider. This low-density designation allows for only two residences to be built on a site measuring at least one-half acre; R-1 zoning allows a two-story maximum height for structures.
Snider plans to keep the number of units far below the maximum allowed for the total acreage. In the first phase, he plans to construct 14 “homes.” Each will include a cluster of five bedrooms and one kitchen, for a total of 70 units.
Later, he plans to construct 14 additional homes that will be privately owned but included in the hotel rental program. Michael Milne of Barefoot Design Group is drawing up the preliminary plans for the resort and beach club.
Depending on permitting, Snider hopes to begin phasing in construction of the hotel starting in 2020.
Snider wants the resort to be energy independent but plans to encourage hotel guests to go back and forth to St. John and St. Thomas to patronize businesses there. Likewise, he wants residents of the bigger islands to patronize his facilities at Lovango. He plans to offer shuttle service by boat.
Snider is the owner of Winnetu Oceanside Resort on Martha’s Vineyard and The Nantucket Hotel & Resort, both upscale resorts on two separate islands miles off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. He’s used to facing challenges that come with island living.
During a recent phone conversation with the Source, Snider didn’t sound particularly upset when he reported, “On the Vineyard and Nantucket, we’re having a nor’easter. All boats are cancelled. We’re having an event Friday night, and everyone’s stuck on the mainland.” For him, operating “just generic resorts – that’s not what life’s about.”
Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are much bigger islands than Lovango Cay, more akin to St. Thomas and St. John, with long histories of development. The Winnetu Oceanside Resort can accommodate up to 500 guests. (“Winnetu” means “beautiful” in Wompanoag, the language of the Native American tribe which originally inhabited the two islands.) The Nantucket Hotel can accommodate 250 guests.
Given their New England seaside climate, both hotels are seasonal. The resort on Martha’s Vineyard employs almost 150 people during its peak summer season, but only has around seven staff members on the premises during the winter. Similarly, the Nantucket Resort employs 120 people during the peak summer season and 10 year-round employees.
The change in employment numbers based on seasonality is the key to developing a reciprocal relationship between the resorts in Massachusetts and the planned resort at Lovango.
“We determined that if we had a U.S. southern destination, we could have employees have the option of working year-round. We want to be able to rotate our employees,” Snider said.
He’s hoping that when winter approaches, employees from his Massachusetts resorts will fly down to the Virgin Islands to work at Lovango. Conversely, when it’s summer (and hurricane season) in the Virgin Islands, employees at Lovango will fly up to work at the resorts in Massachusetts.
It sounds like a perfect plan, but there are several major challenges. The first is that Snider is applying for an Economic Development Commission program, which offers tax breaks to businesses in exchange for providing full-time, year-round employment for Virgin Island residents.
At Lovango, Snider expects to hire 70 seasonal employees but only 10 year-round employees. This doesn’t meet the current program regulations requiring that 80 percent of the employees be full-time Virgin Islands residents. Snider is asking EDC commissioners to consider waiving this regulation.
The notion of rotating employees is a new concept for the EDC, Snider said. After months of discussion, he said that negotiations “are inching along.”
A second problem is finding housing for employees in resort communities where housing costs are high. Snider has to grapple with this problem in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and he’s solved it by providing housing for nearly half of his employees. The situation may be even more acute on St. Thomas and St. John, which are still suffering from a housing shortage resulting from Hurricane Irma.
Snider said he will build some housing for employees on Lovango, but he hopes to hire residents who already have homes on St. Thomas or St. John.
Snider’s son Matt is in the process of moving to the territory to start construction on Lovango, assuming everything goes well with the closing on Oct. 31. This year on Halloween, Snider’s team is hoping for a treat, not a trick.