Report Reveals Five-fold Increase in Vehicles in St. John Rental Fleet

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Twenty-three agencies scan operate a total of more than 1,000 vehicles.

CRUZ BAY — Documents recently obtained from the VI government shows how much the local transportation industry has grown over the past 40 years. A five-fold growth, displayed in records made available through the Department of Motor Vehicles, was shown in the area of vehicle rentals commonly used by visitors.

Twenty-three St. John rental agencies are allowed to own and operate more than one thousand vehicles under a government directed quota system that was last expanded in 2012, according to those documents.

Five of those agencies, representing some of the oldest established car rentals, can have more than 50 vehicles apiece in their inventories.  Nine more can have up to 50 vehicles available to rent.  Eight more can have up to 21 vehicles apiece.

Five new rental agencies joined the roster, according to Department of Motor Vehicles Supervisor Libya Callwood.  Two represent established businesses under new management. 
Those numbers demonstrate how much the vacation market has expanded on island since car rentals first took root in the early 1970s.  If all agencies were to have the maximum alloted inventory and those allowed to stock more than 50 vehicles apiece had, for example, ten extra, the number of St. John rental vehicles would be 968.

One local property manager said he’s pleased to see some of the changes and his customers benefit as well.

Far Cry from 1975
St. John Car Rental owners Albert and Lonnie Willis say the rental fleet of 2015 is a far cry from the days when they leased vehicles owned by private residents and rented them out. In those days, Lonnie Willis said, the total inventory at St. John Car Rental was 35. When added to the 1975 fleet from other companies, there may have been less than 200.

“Varlack Ventures may have been the first car rental service,” she said, adding that a local travel agency got into the business as a sideline for their customers, then sold the car rental to a local businessman.  That enterprise later evolved into St. John Car Rental.

One of the locals leasing privately owned vehicles to the Willis in the 1970s was Robert O’Connor. Today, O’Connor Jeep Rental has one of the larger rental fleets. Conrad Sutton Jeep Rental and Delbert Hill Jeep Rental join VV, St. John Car Rental and O’Connor with 50-plus vehicle quotas.

One new agency, Aqua Blu Car Rental, came into the market with a 50 vehicle quota.

They’re competing in a category of businesses, old and new, with similar inventories including Best Car Rental, Bougainvillea Leasing, Caribbean Villas, Cool Breeze Car Rental, Courtesy Car Rental, Denzil Clyne Jeep Rental, Mr. Piper’s Jeep Rental, Penn’s Jeep Rental and Spencer’s Jeep Rental.

The rest all have 21 vehicle quotas, including newcomers Sunshine Jeep Rental, Destiny Car Rental and Bay Isles Jeep, LLC. Long established agency Lionel re-emerged as Pine Cone.  C& C Car Rental, Hospitality Car Rental, Just Sun Rental, Inc., and L & L Car Rental complete the St. John rental roster.

Inventory Please Villa Rentals
For St. John villa company manager Frank Reggio at Catered To, the array of rental agencies nicely meets the transportation needs of his customers.

“For the most part we feel that all our needs are filled,” Reggio said.  “We’re never stuck unless a guest calls at the last minute at Christmas.”

Even at those times Reggio said his business benefits from the courtesy and cooperative spirit found at some of the 23 St. John agencies.  His favorites include Denzil Clyne, St. John Car Rental and Mr. Piper, formerly Paris Jeep Rental.

“They’ll bend over backwards to do bring extra service,” Reggio said.  “The hospitality side of the car rental business is improving.

Catered To books thousands of units a year from their inventory of 45 St. John rental villas at 75 to 80 percent occupancy in 2014.  The vehicle rental companies also serve guests from established hotels including St. John Westin, Caneel Bay and Gallows Point, small inns and other villa rental companies.

St. Thomas Rentals Illegal Invaders
Still, the Willises complain the St. John fleet is threatened by rentals booked on St. Thomas and brought over by car barge. The subject of St. Thomas rentals invading the market came up at a July 23 hearing of the 31st Legislature’s Committee on Finance.

Testifier Lawrence Olive, Director of the Motor Vehicles Bureau, said the VI Code clearly prohibits the practice and the St. John car rental association went to court several years ago to stop it.

The matter has come to his attention since he took office at the head of the MVB, Olive said.  He’s still trying to figure out what to do about it, especially in light of opponents who say blocking St. Thomas rentals from coming over to St. John interferes with interstate commerce.

“It’s a funny situation but its the same as it is with taxis,” Olive said. “I can’t take my taxi from here and go to St. John with it or you can’t take your taxi from St. John and come here with it. How can we clarify this matter because the Virgin Islands Code is clear.  It tells you you’re not supposed to take a rental from St. Thomas to St. John.”

Lonnie Willis estimated between 60 and 100 rentals come over from St. Thomas on the barge daily but to be sure, she said, it’s best to check with barge operators.

Albert Willis, her husband of 43 years and business partner, said he was not sure about the numbers but was sure that the practice should be stopped.

How could they let it happen, he asked.

At the same time Willis admitted the practice may not be soon to change because the St. John car rental association abandoned its legal challenge several years ago.