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On Island Profile: Bill Jowers

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Jan. 21, 2007 — When philanthropist Arthur Fairchild deeded Magens Bay to the people of St. Thomas in 1946, he could not have found a better steward than Magens Bay Manager Bill Jowers, who has been the heart and soul of the beach for the past 25 years.
Often referred to as "the face of Magens," the bespectacled Jowers, 57, will retire at the end of January.
Jowers' legacy is twofold: the first being the kindness and respect he has shown for the plants, animals, water, employees, and all those who enjoy the natural wonder of the beach; the second, his strict dedication to the preservation and protection of Magens Bay. "We have to remember every person living on St. Thomas has to help preserve Magens, that's the key," he says.
"I am always aware of Mr. Fairchild's wisdom when he deeded the beach to the people, and not the government. He knew what governments could do," he says. "It is truly the people's beach."
The 350-acre Magens property is one of the island's ecological treasures. Rated by National Geographic as one of the world's 10 best beaches, Magens is the prized site of hundreds of weddings each year.
Truly A Native Son
"I grew up in a 200-year-old home on Seventh Day Street with my older brothers, John and James," Jowers says. "A fun day was a hike. You could go from Mafolie to Lindbergh and get water from the springs we had then. My brothers and I would explore all over the island. It was a whole different environment then."
Jowers attended All Saints School and graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School in 1968. He then attended the College of the Virgin Islands for two semesters, until a severe motorcycle accident requiring 18 months of recuperation interrupted his studies. Afterward, Jowers worked a variety of jobs on the island, including 10 years with Bob Smith at ship-to-shore radio WAH-VI, across from Yacht Haven.
His arrival at Magens in 1981 was actually inauspicious. "When Bob sold the company," he says, "I answered an ad in the paper for a manager at Magens Bay."
Jowers smiles somewhat, recalling the early days. "Some of it was uphill at first," he says. For one thing, he had never had to answer to a board before.
"It was extremely awakening for me, so to speak, and for them. I had a lot to learn," he says. "It took some adjusting at first, but it worked out well."
It has worked out more than "well." Just ask Edmund Penn, who was Magens Bay Authority chair for decades until stepping down last year.
Having worked hand in hand with Jowers, Penn knows his dedication firsthand. "He has worked 10 to 12 hours a day to keep things going for years," Penn said this week. "It takes time, even late in the evening. Our system demands that we keep the bathhouses operating, septic facilities running, that's just a part of it. We have made the beach self supporting; we don't take any money from the government."
Growth of Magens
Things have changed dramatically under Jowers' watch. "When I was first here," he says, "a big day was 500. Now, on average, we have between 1,500 and 2,000 in season, and at least 3,500 on weekends."
Now limited to the gate area, the tours and taxis have a strict routine for dropping off and picking up passengers. However, this hasn't always been the case. A few years ago, Jowers had to take out a temporary restraining order against some of the taxis that were abusing privileges. The order worked, and today things run smoothly. "As a matter of fact," Jowers says, "Triple A Taxi has been doing a terrific job since it restructured. We hope to keep them."
Diplomacy is one of Jowers' greatest assets. Board member Katina Coulianos-Sells says, "I don't think I've ever seen him mad. He represents the authority very well. We have been in good hands, as he grew, the beach grew." She adds, "You can't believe that something that looks so quiet and peaceful takes so much work, so much care. It is that way because there is a complex mechanism that Bill keeps in place."
Jowers is easygoing and modest almost to a fault. When the St. Thomas Chamber of Commerce wanted to honor him at a dinner a couple years ago, he declined. It was not easy to get him to sit for an interview. "It's not much of a story," he says.
There is only one person who believes that: Jowers, himself.
About the task at hand, he explains, "The job can be difficult; it's really learn as you go. You have to be prepared for whatever, every day, every hour. When you are dealing with the public, you have to be very flexible, ready to address just about anything at any time throughout the day, and into the night, when phone calls can come."
A Self-Sufficient Entity
Jowers says financial stability has been a positive change for the beach. "We haven't used any government funds since 1998," he says. "We pay our staff from our own resources, pay our vendors, buy all our equipment, pay for our garbage removal." Those resources include gate fees, shed rentals, concession rentals and weddings. He notes with pride, "The local government doesn't have to strain to support Magens Bay."
However, Jowers says, the authority may soon ask the government for about $200,000 to lay a new road to run behind the sheds. "It would leave the road by the beach without traffic, to protect people, especially children, to cross to the beach."
Since arriving at Magens all those years ago, Jowers has grown with the beach. At Magens, the natural love he has always felt for the island's flora and fauna is anything but unrequited.
The Nelthropp Arboretum is a special source of a pride. An avid horticulturist, Fairchild gathered seeds from around the world, setting aside five acres of land for the exotic flora and fauna. There are 200 different species representing 71 plant families growing there, including 20 species of trees that do not occur naturally elsewhere in the world.
Jowers notes the arboretum has suffered — first from neglect years ago and then from storms. "It had just been renovated when Hurricane Marilyn hit in 1995," Jowers says. "There is more now to be done."
One of those things is a project with the Audubon Club of St. Thomas. "Mario Francis (club president) is going to set up a kiosk identifying bird, fish and plant life at the beach," Jowers says. "It will be a great addition."
Along with caring for the arboretum, the authority also manages Drake's Seat. In 2002, the Nature Conservancy, along with the V.I. government, purchased 228 acres of land around and above Magens Bay for use as a nature preserve and wildlife refuge.
"We pick up the trash and keep it presentable," Jowers says. "We put up railings so people can't back up off the side of the road. We would like to build a boardwalk below the wall with handicap accessibility … I always worry about people getting hit by taxis."
Jowers has a crew of 20. In addition to assistant manager Euken Fredricks and office manager Urline Lettsome, there are seven lifeguards, five groundskeepers, three custodians and three gate men. "We have the best crew in the world," Jowers says, looking up a minute as Freddy Aubain drops by. "Freddy's a great gatehouse person, but we will be losing him, too. He will retire this year."
With more than a touch of sadness, Jowers says, "And Euken will be leaving, too, after 32 years. "I can't remember him not being here."
The mild-mannered Magens icon pauses a minute before he says what he has treasured most over the past quarter century. "To be able walk the whole beach early in the morning before anyone is here and see the beauty of the place," he says. "To see a snow white pigeon out my window.&
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Although he's retiring, Jowers has no plans to fade into the sunset. "I'm not sure what I'll be doing," he says, "I'll still throw in my two cents worth when I feel it's necessary, and if they don't take it, they don't."
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