With the massive Wonder of the Seas serving as a backdrop, V.I. Port Authority Executive Director Carlton Dowe on Wednesday announced a $250 million public-private partnership with Royal Caribbean Group and Cruise Terminals International that will triple the footprint of Crown Bay on St. Thomas and add a third berth to the facility, doubling the capacity of the port.
Speaking to a gathering of territory officials and the media at the Austin “Babe” Monsanto Marine Terminal in Crown Bay, where Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas called on Wednesday, Dowe said the partnership is critical to the future of tourism in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“No one in the world, or the Caribbean for that matter, is sitting back and waiting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. We must move along with the times and be ahead of others in the world and in the Caribbean,” he said.
“The way we are going to get there, though — and I want to make a couple of things abundantly clear — is that we have got to do this through a public-private partnership,” said Dowe.
“I just continue to say to this community that there ain’t no bad, there’s nothing foreign, nothing strange, about a public-private partnership where everybody — the private entity wins, the government of the Virgin Islands wins, and of course the Port Authority wins, which means the entire community wins,” he said.
“For anyone to believe that the Port Authority has some deep pockets, and they are the ones who should do it, it don’t work like that,” said Dowe.
The project — approved by VIPA’s governing board on Wednesday — will be funded by an additional $5 fee charged to Royal Caribbean passengers calling on St. Thomas and St. Croix starting in January and will expand Crown Bay’s footprint from eight acres to about 25 acres, said Joshua Carroll, vice president of Destination Development for Royal Caribbean, who joined Dowe for the announcement along with Khaled Naja, CEO of Cruise Terminals International.
CTI is a strategic partnership between Royal Caribbean Group and funds affiliated with iCON Infrastructure, an investment fund manager, that develops and operates cruise port infrastructure worldwide.
“In many ways it’s already started, with the agreement we made with the Port Authority. For some time now we’ve been having divers going in the water doing surveys, etcetera. For the next year or so that type of work is going to continue — the predevelopment phase is what we call it — then coming into 2024 through 2025, that’s when we’ll start seeing activity,” said Carroll. “It needs to go thoughtfully in different stages and phases because we don’t want to disrupt the existing operation here.”
Then there’s other elements such as the third berth, he said. “You have much longer lead times when you have Army Corps permits and other more complicated approvals. But ultimately, starting around the end of next year through 2027-2028 is when you’ll see all of the construction work happening in different phases,” said Carroll.
The dozens of small businesses that currently occupy the space where the expansion will take place will be relocated before construction begins to property the Port Authority owns behind the Nisky Moravian Church just east of the airport, said Dowe.
“When you go back in there, the Port owns about three acres of that land. That’s the vision that we had, knowing that at some point, if anything unfolds, that’s the property we would have to look for. We expect that in this relationship there will be some monies that will be set aside, very early on, so that all those folks can be relocated,” said Dowe.
“Since the first meeting we’ve had with the Virgin Islands Port Authority, there have been serious conversations about the local relocation and how sensitive it is for Mr. Dowe as well as for the entire Virgin Islands Port Authority, to ensure that we are taking care of the local community with the utmost support and care, so that is something that is very important,” said Naja.
“We can’t do this development as we go forward, and don’t think about the local community or the impact. That is why all these small folks and mechanics and the like who do business, they operate in Crown Bay, we’re not doing this in some vacuum and say, ‘You just leave,’ and that’s it. We’re taking all these things into consideration. We want to make sure the people of this territory will always have access to these properties,” said Dowe.
While the design details are not yet finalized, the new facility will include a mix of small kiosks and larger stores, with priority given to local businesses and entrepreneurs, said Carroll.
“We’re very focused on bringing in the local community so that our guests can experience local attractions, but you’ll also see expansions of an additional shore excursion dock, for example, more space and more ground transportation, logistics, to be able to get people off the ships and out and throughout the community,” he said.
“At some point there will be some likely international brands that come in, in order to have a well-rounded offering. But it’s always our practice that the first groups that are able to come are local businesses and local entrepreneurs, and then we fill in the rest with what’s not filled by them,” said Carroll.
At the same time, “we always try to strike a great balance between, we want this to be a place that our guests come, but they don’t stay too long because we want them to get out to other attractions and other locations in the community,” said Carroll. “You’ll see that we are contemplating something that we are calling a day resort, which is an area that will only handle several hundred people of the close to 20,000 that can be in the port on some days.”
Dowe emphasized that a large percentage of cruise ship travelers who come to St. Thomas are repeat visitors, and “they make a decision as to whether or not today they are going to come off of the ship or they’re going to stay on board. We’ve got to develop things right in the territory and Crown Bay will be the lead on that to make sure that the greatest percentage of the people that come into the territory on cruise ships, in fact come off the ship. They are only going to come off when there are other opportunities and destinations and creations that they really want to see or really want to participate in,” he said.
He also emphasized Royal Caribbean’s longstanding relationship with the U.S. Virgin Islands, which was never more apparent than after the twin Category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.
“Partnership can’t only be in good times. Partnership must also be in the rocky times. I want us to recognize during the hurricanes, what happened here. The place was devastated, all of us know. Magens Bay turned right upside down. We’ve never seen that beach or the properties like that before,” said Dowe.
“It wasn’t FEMA, it wasn’t all these other folks, it was Royal Caribbean, based on a commitment they made to this territory, was first in, with their vessels, their employees, contracting local heavy equipment operators, and contracting local folks, to restore and get Magens Bay ready to go, so that we be the first around to accept cruise travel again,” said Dowe.
“I also want to use this opportunity to dispel some of what is said to just the same five people in this community,” he said.
“Florida, as we know, don’t make the bulk of their money from oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit. Florida makes the bulk of their money from tourism. So, when people tell you, ‘Why we’re doing this?’ or ‘Why not do that?’ we must recognize in this territory what really pays the bills. Tourism, whether by sea or by air, that’s what pays the bills here. So we have to start pushing back on the one or two who make these kind of comments. Bad things happen when good people stay quiet,” said Dowe.
Pointing to the nearby charter tours departing the excursion dock filled with cruise ship passengers, Dowe said, “You’re seeing commerce at its best. People making a living. When you look a little further and you see all the vans and the safaris, those people are working. The tour operators, people working, going to different destinations and venues on this island, it means that things are stirring. It means that people in the restaurant are making money,” he said.
“All these other things spin off from what we do and see here. I want to remind all of us, whatever we do, recognize that in this development we are talking about, there are architects, engineers, consultants, environmental folks, people diving in the water, doing all these things, it means things are happening. At the same time, there is major construction to be had,” said Dowe.
Not to leave out St. Croix, he said, where Royal Caribbean committed last year to triple the number of passengers it brings to the island to 140,000 annually and where recently its staff have been holding training for taxi drivers.
“Make no mistake, they want to bring more people to St. Croix, too. So part of this $5 that we’re going to collect in St. Crox will go to dredging in St. Croix so that for the first time it will be able to accommodate larger vessels,” said Dowe.
“At the end of the day, we must make decisions that’s in the best interest of this territory and the children not yet born. That’s the decision we are faced with every day,” he said.