Much has been said about the future of Coral Bay, a small town and harbor on St. John, nestled between the steep hills of Carolina and the long finger of East End that stretches almost to the British Virgin Islands. This natural harbor has recently been home to many small sailing and power boats that anchor comfortably in the mostly protected anchorage.
Many years ago, it had much fewer boaters, and no one seemed to care what they did or who they were. The town was a quiet one with a few shops, restaurants and tourists. It came alive during Labor Day festivities and election time, when people from all over St. John and St. Thomas would gather for the celebration or enjoy free chicken legs from aspiring politicians. Sputnik bar (Arnette Marsh), Fred’s bar (Fred Samuel), Smiths White House (now Skinny’s), along with some local families provided tasty local dishes they prepared fresh and served from tables set up under shade trees.
There was little care or attention paid to this part of St John by the government or private developers, and it stayed that way for many years.
Over time though, tourists that did venture out to Vyes on East End or Salt Pond were enticed by its remoteness and laid-back lifestyle. Soon, small houses began to pop up on the hillsides, new roads opened up more areas and lower real estate values attracted new residents.
All seemed well until those few houses doubled exponentially every five years, and a new community of homeowners and rental houses changed the narrative of this quiet little town and harbor. Small businesses opened to meet the needs of these new residents, bars and restaurants were taken over by newcomers, replacing the roles once performed by the Marshes, Smiths, and Samuels. This seemed to work for a while, but as the face of Coral Bay became whiter and more affluent, local families were less evident and no longer in control of their town.
The opportunities for the offspring of the Coral Bay’s local families continued to shrink over the years, as there was no effort by the government or developers to protect their interests. Commercial lands were leased or purchased by outsiders, as renting or selling seemed the only option for locals to get some benefit from the changing economics.
But of course, that did not help everyone. So here we are today, faced with the major decision of whether to approve a controversial large marina or keep the locally unpopular status quo.
I would like to suggest a more equitable solution to this standoff, one that has something for everyone. I have stayed out of the controversial part of the marina, with its hearings, politics and divisiveness, only because I know its roots and respect the positions of all the parties involved.
First, let me say that it is my opinion that a large marina would not be for the benefit of local families. People who will use the marina are not at all interested in saving Coral Bay’s local families, and those on the other side that advocate to “Save Coral Bay” have no claim to it other than it provides a nice view for them.
Historically, Coral Bay was the main town for St. John; it was more populated than Cruz Bay. Would it not make more sense to capitalize on that fact and move toward growing the town into a small but vibrant community with small local businesses, recreational facilities, police, gas stations, community center and restore the Moravian church to its original state to connect the past with the present?
The harbor could be redesigned to provide a large dock with ferry service, barge service, storage areas, Customs and Immigration facilities. A boardwalk that stretches south along the entire shore, with dinghy tie-ups, boat rentals, fishing charters, bars, restaurants and local vendors. The harbor can be filled with moorings for visiting vessels, local fishermen, day-charter boats and a live-aboard area with pump-out stations, fuel docks and marine supplies.
The docks and facilities would be owned by the V.I. Port Authority, the moorings would be leased and maintained by the V.I. Department of Natural Resources, the boardwalk owned and leased by the V.I. government, and the private lands it passes will remain in local ownership. The jobs would be plentiful, and like any other Virgin Island port facility, it will require security workers, dockmaster, management personnel and maintenance workers.
On the public/private side, you will need employees for the fuel dock, the pump station, mooring maintenance and fee collection. Businesses will flourish along the new boardwalk — all needing employees — while also providing a location for local entrepreneurs to access a thriving marine industry.
With good management, the harbor would clean up and encourage a return of recreational boaters from the BVI, which could pump millions into a new Coral Bay economy. The BVI has priced itself out for USVI boaters; Customs fees and bureaucracy has gradually made it too expensive for day charters and tourists. Local families whose children moved elsewhere for jobs and less expensive housing can come home and find work and opportunities.
This will all help to rebuild a community that in the past embraced newcomers and established bonds that still exist today. No longer will locals be threatened by economic extinction, but rather confident that the future will include them. With a government that partners with locals to provide seed money, training, and tax incentives (how radical: tax breaks for those that need it!), it will foster a reverse migration and become a reality very quickly.
We need these young Virgin Islands professionals to return and be a driving force of this revived economy. But most importantly, their children’s children will be needed to ensure that St. Johnians will always have a strong voice at the table. We don’t need to build a marina or Save Coral Bay to realize these benefits, all we need is a vision and a plan.
In conclusion, there would be no more a fitting name for these docking facilities than the Robert O’Connor Jr. Marine Facility in order to honor the former senator, business owner and VIPA chairman who has always put his home island first in his heart and actions.
— Andrew Rutnik, St. John