During a harsh, mid-February week in Maine, it’s easy to dream of warm sunshine and soft Caribbean breezes.
And many people pay dearly to turn those dreams into reality.
That’s what Pam Hurley Moser and David Moser were banking on nearly three years ago when they paid $1.7 million for a four-bedroom house on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, high on a hillside overlooking the blue waters of Rendezvous Bay.
The couple intended to develop the house into a villa they could rent to well-heeled guests with an affinity for Maine. After all, Hurley Moser had built a travel agency into a $60 million-a-year success by tapping into a network of Maine businesses and individuals that needed help planning trips, and Moser came from the famed high-end furniture company based in Auburn. They were nothing if not well-connected.
But in the interim, Hurricanes Irma and Maria intervened, destroying the property and nearly the couple’s plans.
Now they are in the midst of a rebuilding effort, buoyed by a $900,000 insurance payment and crews of Maine tradesmen whom they transport to the Virgin Islands retreat to make the repairs. The project is planned as an investment for the couple, and as a way to contribute to an island economy dependent on tourism.
Once the repairs are complete, the couple want to rent the villa to vacationing Mainers willing to pay the $8,000-per-week fee. The rental fee might make the typical Mainer gasp, but on the Virgin Islands, that’s a midrange rent.
It isn’t unusual for top-end homes to fetch $20,000 a week, said Hurley Moser, and unlike many warm-weather locales, the Virgin Islands doesn’t have much of an off-season.
“We saw some rentals that were making $300,000-400,000 a year,” Hurley Moser said, noting every property they looked at when they were searching for a home came with a profit and loss statement.
Tourism is key to the Virgin Islands economy. In 2017, tourism generated $1.1 billion, directly and indirectly, in the islands’ economy, or 28 percent of the total economic output. That figure is expected to grow dramatically in the next decade, with tourism accounting for 43 percent of the economy, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Tourism also accounts for nearly 13 percent of the jobs in the Virgin Islands, the council said.
The Mosers’ search for an investment property led them to the top of a hill with a sweeping view of the bay.
“It was the best sunset ever,” Hurley Moser said, and they learned the 5,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house was “quietly on the market.” The owner, an elderly woman in New York City, had bought the house with her husband decades before.
They bought it and started to plan renovations on the house, which they dubbed the “Maine Escape.”
They were in no hurry initially, but a year later, Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria hit the Virgin Islands, ripped off the roof and did other major damage to the property.
Moser waited to check on the fate of the house, not wanting his presence to interfere with rescue operations and early efforts to rebuild in the immediate aftermath of the hurricanes. His concern for the welfare of inhabitants, though, led him to contact Maine businesses, asking for donations of goods and equipment, particularly electric generators, that he shipped to the island for use by local workers helping to repair buildings. Renys, the Maine department store chain, was particularly generous, he said, providing two dozen generators.
A few months later, Moser and Jim Hagan, with whom he had worked at Thos. Moser for nearly two decades, checked out the damage.
“It was a mess and the first week we were down there, it wasn’t pretty,” Hagan said.
The couple had insured the house against hurricane damage – “the best $20,000 we ever spent,” Hurley Moser said – and eventually got $900,000 from the insurer to put into fixing the damage.
They went back to Maine, hired a crew and returned to the island, bringing tools and other supplies to make the repairs themselves.
Moser said he donated excess supplies to islanders, and as the recovery efforts progressed, was able to hire local laborers to help on his project.
Hagan acknowledged it wasn’t hard to lure Maine electricians, carpenters and other skilled workers to work in the Virgin Islands. Their pay was what it would have been in Maine, he and Moser said, but there wasn’t any time to head to the beaches.
“It wasn’t a hard sell, especially in the wintertime,” Hagan said, “but it wasn’t all peaches and cream.”
He said many trucks delivering supplies couldn’t make it past the driveway entrance. The work crew, he said, had to haul heavy equipment and supplies 100 feet uphill to the job site to rebuild the roof and repair the badly damaged interior.
There were unexpected issues. For instance, strong winds kept knocking deck furniture around outside, sometimes blowing it off the deck. Moser drew on his furniture background and created a new lounger built on a steel frame heavy enough to keep it in place.
Moser has been back and forth for the past year to work on the house, with the final fixes planned for the end of this month.
Then, if all goes well, the Maine Escape will be ready for occupancy in May. Even then, though, the project won’t be done. The Mosers plan to add a pool, more bedroom suites and perhaps a bunkhouse soon.
The couple will tap into their extensive network of contacts to market the villa, noting there seems to be a critical mass of Mainers on St. John already.
“There’s not a day that goes by (on the island) that you don’t meet the Mainer du jour,” Moser said. “Were it not for the palm trees and the 80-degree weather, you could be in Maine.”
Their property, outfitted with products from L.L. Bean and Thos. Moser, “looks like Maine, it feels like Maine,” Hurley Moser said. “So that’s where we came up with the proper name for it – the Maine Escape.”