Park works to improve local relationships

CRUZ BAY, U.S. Virgin Islands— It’s a typical warm and sunny November morning in Cruz Bay, St. John’s largest town and home to the Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center and headquarters.

On the athletic field next to the Visitor Center, boys ranging in age from 8 to 14 engage in fun and friendly games of flag football with the Youth Co-ed Flag Football League. Two games are played simultaneously, each team distinguished by its brightly colored t-shirts. As the action on the field heats up, friends and family cheer and snap photos from the packed bleachers on the sidelines.


Ronnie Jones referees a flag football game for the Youth Co-ed Flag Football League on the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park field at Cruz Bay (Photo by Kendall Sale).

Without the consideration of the Virgin Islands National Park and Superintendent Mark Hardgrove, this Saturday morning tradition might no longer exist.

“We wouldn’t be playing this game right now if Mr. Hardgrove didn’t care about the community. This is their park and he lets us use it,” said Ronnie Jones, a volunteer referee for the flag football league.

“I see Mr. Hardgrove as a great asset to this community in his capacity as park superintendent,” Jones added.

Since Mark Hardgrove took office as superintendent of the Virgin Islands National Park on Sept. 2, 2007, he has made the park’s relationship with the locals of St. John a top priority.

A 35-year-old veteran of the National Park Service, he has held positions at 10 national parks around the nation. Before assuming his position of superintendent in the Virgin Islands, he served as the deputy superintendent at the Outer Banks Group of Parks in North Carolina (which consists of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Wright Brothers National Monument, and Fort Raleigh National Historic Site) for six years.

“My favorite part of the job is working with the NPS staff, park neighbors and the governmental and non-governmental partners,” said Hardgrove. “We are all working together to provide high quality visitor services while protecting the delicate resources of the Virgin Islands for future generations.”

Laurance Rockefeller, a prominent venture capitalist and third-generation member of the Rockefeller family, purchased the island of St. John in 1956. At the time of his purchase, he intended to conserve 60 percent of the island for the national park and leave 40 percent for the established community.

“Rockefeller’s goal was understood, the community appreciated him, and things went well for awhile,” said Hardgrove. “Then, as the island became a popular vacation spot for the wealthy, prices rose and that generation of locals could no longer afford to live on St. John.”

Virgin Islands National Park Visitor Center and Head- quarters,  (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service).

Locals were forced to move to nearby St. Thomas and commute by ferry back to Cruz Bay to work each day. The tourism generated by the Virgin Islands National Park slowly left Cruz Bay locals with bitter feelings towards the park administration.

“In the past, there was a rift between our community and park management,” said Jones.

With Hardgrove as superintendent, this rift has mostly — if not completely — disappeared.

“As opposed to preaching to the community about NPS philosophy, the superintendent, in a number of town meetings, has sought to partner with community groups and organizations,” said U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. John P. de Jongh, Jr.  “The plans of the superintendent and the park service are better understood by a larger segment of our community due in part to the superintendent’s management style and his outreach to the community.”

Within his first weeks as superintendent, Hardgrove held an informal meet-and-greet at the park’s visitor center in Cruz Bay. This early initiative to open the doors of the national park to the local community had never been done by any preceding superintendent.

Also during that time, Hardgrove began working to fulfill one of the community’s major requests: a new school, possibly on National Park Service land.

The island of St. John is in desperate need of a K-12 school. Not only are the Julius E. Sprauve and Guy Benjamin schools outdated and overcrowded, but they are also located on the island of St. Thomas. With a new K-12 school on St. John, students would no longer have to commute by ferry to St. Thomas each day.

“The first steps are to determine population trends over the next 20 years, determine the ages of school age children now and into the future and then develop the architectural program and cost for a new school,” Hardgrove said. “This is in the early stages and discussions are still focused about planning alternatives.”

Hardgrove has also helped foster the relationship between the national park and the local community through beach clean-up events.

“The community is so happy, so responsive, and willing to help,” Hardgrove said. “All we need to do is reach out, listen and react to their concerns.”

U.S. Virgin Islands National Park Superintendent Mark Hardgrove talks with a group of visiting college students at the Cruz Bay Visitor Center (Staff photo).

“We truly appreciate the posture Superintendent Hardgrove has taken as regards the presence of the National Park Service on the islands of St. Thomas and St. John,” said de Jongh.  “Superintendent Hardgrove has embraced the community and his positive reception is indicative of his style of moving forward on the things that the public and the park service agree on.”

In his short time as superintendent, Hardgrove has efficiently balanced the needs of the national park with the needs of the surrounding community. This community that often describes themselves as “relaxed” and “laid-back” has often taken a back-seat to national park initiatives in the past.

“Our expectations are high, but we try not to get disappointed easily,” said Jones. “We’re last on the government’s list.”

With Hardgrove as superintendent, the surrounding community is certainly becoming a priority.

“From the time he got here, he’s been showing us he’s involved,” said Jones. “We just want to know somebody is looking out for us.”

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