Tuesday, February 13, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Waimea, Sea Life park for sale again

By Frank Cho
Advertiser Staff Writer

Four years after they first went into foreclosure, Waimea Valley Adventure Park and Sea Life Park are again being put up for sale.

A state judge agreed to a request by Bank of Hawaii, which holds several mortgages on the parks, to appoint a foreclosure commissioner to sell the Waimea Valley park, along with the lease for Sea Life Park, after a dispute with the parks’ owners.

Attorneys for the parks and their owners, which includes New York businessman Christian Wolffer, yesterday said they would appeal the foreclosure action.

"The parks are not going anywhere. This foreclosure action is totally unwarranted, and we plan to fight this on several different levels," said Denise Sangster, a lawyer representing the parks’ owners.

Bank of Hawaii, which had been owed roughly $12 million by the parks, declined to comment yesterday. The case is still under a court seal. "It is the bank’s policy not to comment or discuss our relationships with clients or pending litigation," said Carole Tang, a spokeswoman for the bank.

There are about 350 employees and vendors who could be affected by a sale.

Wolffer led a group of investors to buy the 1,875-acre North Shore landmark and Sea Life Park in 1996, assuming $12 million in mortgages and letters of credit that the previous owners could not pay off.

Bank of Hawaii, which had started foreclosure proceedings against the parks earlier that year, agreed to stop the action if Wolffer would buy the mortgages by June 30, 2000.

Wolffer spent the next four years trying to make the culturally and educationally significant parks profitable. The parcels included many Hawaiian archaeological sites and an arboretum in Waimea.

Sea Life Park, on Oahu’s Windward coast, improved, but Waimea Valley park continued to struggle financially, company officials said. Last year, Wolffer put the Waimea property up for sale, asking $25 million while he continued to negotiate to buy the debt from the bank.

Before the deal could close in June, a dispute surfaced. Company attorneys say Wolffer believed he owed the bank $498,000 to buy the mortgages. Bank of Hawaii officials told him the figure was more like $4.3 million. Unable to reach an agreement, the bank asked the court in December to reinstate the previous foreclosure action and appoint a new commissioner and sell the parks. The court agreed.

"This is terrible for the parks," said Gary Levitt, an attorney for Attractions Hawaii Funding Co., a limited liability corporation formed by Wolffer to buy the mortgages.

Levitt said the company was not in default and a move to foreclose was premature.

In late January, the court appointed Guido Giacometti as commissioner. "My job is to figure out a way to sell the properties for the best possible price," said Giacometti, who added that it may be harder than some may expect.

Even before the foreclosure, however, the city had said it wants to buy the property. A budget slated for approval at a Feb. 25 council meeting includes about $5 million, the assessed value of the parks, to fund a purchase.

"I suspect that this is going to have an affect on the value and what other people will be willing to offer," said Giacometti, referring to the city’s offer.

City Councilwoman Rene Mansho, who represents North Shore residents, said the city will go to court if a sales price cannot be agreed upon. Mansho said she wants Waimea Valley to be available for public use. "We are not trying to shortchange anybody," Mansho said.

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