Monday, March 5, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, March 5, 2001

Scenic and historic, Waimea Valley is at crossroad

Josh Hartmann, left, and Kalae Arnold fly off a cliff high above Waimea Valley, into the waters below, as an audience of tourists watches.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

By Tino Ramirez
Advertiser North Shore Bureau

SUNSET BEACH — It would be difficult to find a place that meets more expectations of what Hawaii should be than Waimea Valley.

Even on Oahu’s scenic North Shore, Waimea is remarkable. A waterfall plunges into a deep pool, the streams below its steep walls drain into a wetland behind a bay famous for its broad, sandy beach, and the dominant color is green.

Waimea’s historical and cultural significance also are remarkable. Since at least the 11th century, it was the home of Hawaiian priests. Both sides of the bay are flanked by heiau and within the valley are more temples, as well as living and burial sites. Many Hawaiians say their ancestors’ presence is still strong.

Unique as Waimea Valley is, it is not insulated from the times. Since 1974, the valley also has been a tourist destination. Founded by Charles Pietsch III, Waimea Falls Park was once Oahu's third-largest visitor attraction. Along with dive shows at the waterfall, it featured Waimea Arboretum and Botanical Garden, a world-class repository for tropical plants, as well as a strong emphasis on Hawaiian culture.

During the ’90s, however, as the growth of tourism slowed, park attendance and revenue tanked.

Christian Wolffer, a New York developer, bought the valley in 1996 and tried to revive the park. After cutting the staff to 90, as well as reducing support for the arboretum, last August Wolffer put the 1,875-acre property on the market as a residence.

The City and County of Honolulu now hopes to purchase the valley for about $5.2 million, much less than the $19 million Wolffer is asking. With no money to operate the park or pay its employees, city officials plan to hire a group or groups to manage the wealth of cultural, historical and botanical resources at the park.

City officials have a goal — to keep the valley and its resources intact, and open to the public — but are still deciding how to accomplish that. A months-long community advisory process has been completed, and its recommendations submitted to the city administration for decisions. Next come negotiations for the property and the city’s search for potential partners.

"When the valley went on the market, that raised the red flag for us," said Councilwoman Rene Mansho (North Shore, Central Oahu). "The property could go into the hands of a private owner who could block public access, and no one would see the valley."

If another buyer comes in with the intention of operating the park and keeping the valley open to the public, there would be no need for the city to purchase it, Mansho said last week. In that case, the city could come in as a partner, perhaps to help manage the botanical gardens, she said.

A precedent in Waipahu

Such a partnership, or one where operations are contracted out, wouldn’t be the city's first, she said. At Waipahu Cultural Garden Park, for example, the city owns the property and helped with construction, and now charges the nonprofit group running it a nominal $1 annually. The group does its own fund-raising and has money-making concessions, but lets people in for free, she said.

"There are different models," Mansho said. "The City Council could charge a lease rent, or if it’s a nonprofit, let them have it for $1. All of that has yet to be decided."

What also remains to be decided is how a new owner or contractor would operate the park. That issue was taken up over the last few months by a committee comprised of whoever attended meetings. It included residents of the North Shore, as well as other communities, park employees and managers. It was given the task of making recommendations concerning park economics and the plant collection, as well as cultural, historic and educational issues.

The advisory process was completed last week when, at a contentious meeting attended by more than 100 people, recommendations to guide economic development were adopted. They call for a nonprofit group to manage the park without turning to "adventure activities" currently featured at Waimea such as all-terrain vehicle rides or a ski-lift-like "zipline" near the park entrance being proposed by Ray Greene, the current manager.

The park should emphasize cultural, educational and historic programs, and support Waimea Arboretum, with the aim of maintaining and expanding jobs as economics allow, according to the recommendations. Acceptable activities include camping, a wellness center, botanical research, hiking and a surfing museum, as well as a museum to house artifacts already at the park and others returned to Waimea from other museums.

A major employer

Much is at stake. With about 150 jobs, the Parks at Waimea (formerly Waimea Valley Adventure Park) is among the North Shore's largest employers. It offers residents work near home in a beautiful environment, as well as an opportunity to practice Hawaiian culture through entertainment and education.

Waimea Arboretum also has more than 30 collections of plants from around the world, some of them endangered in their home habitats or potentially beneficial as sources for new medicines. At the end of 1998, two years into Wolffer’s ownership, the park reduced its monthly support of the arboretum from $10,000 to $1,500. That money flow was completely cut off in October.

That has forced arboretum director David Orr to seek private donations and grants. Reductions in staff have also meant the collections are receiving less care. Through the city Office of Economic Development and Empower North Shore Oahu, the arboretum has received $46,000 in federal grants. About $16,000 remains, said Orr.

"We only have three more months of guaranteed funding left," Orr said last week. "We've hired a plant propagator, and it's crucial to duplicate plants in the arboretum and get them out of the valley."

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hawaiian culture and the valley’s historical sites were featured at the park. The valley was once the home of priests and kahuna, or experts, in many fields. Within the valley are more than 40 historic sites.

The park once held an annual makahiki festival to mark the beginning of the traditional season of peace and rest, and park archaeologist Rudy Mitchell reconstructed a heiau dedicated to the god Lono, as well as a chief’s living site, the Kauhale Kahiko. Cuts in staff have meant fewer cultural activities, as well as less maintenance of sites.

The recommendations are sound, said Bettie Jenkins, a highly respected Hawaiian elder from Waialua who chaired the cultural, historic and education subcommittee. She said she does not believe "adventure" activities respect the valley’s sacredness.

Hawaiians from around Oahu joined the subcommittee because they were concerned about making sure the valley becomes pono, or righteous, again, she said. They have always referred to the valley as being female, she said.

"This is a place of rejuvenation. You can bring seeds here, endangered species can bloom and come back, and once a month the water in this area turns red," said Jenkins. "It’s kind of hard to go against those things, so much so that we’re going to bring 500 indigenous women from across the world here in August. The conference is on total wellness, in mind, body and spirit."

The Stewards of Waimea, which formed in late July to aid Waimea Arboretum, hopes the arboretum’s foundation or a like-minded group will be awarded the operations contract. Ralph Bard, an investment manager who is raising money for and contributing to an $8 million endowment for the valley, said the Stewards already have enough capital to begin operating the park.

Serving several needs

The future of Waimea Valley doesn’t have to be "either/or," said Bob Leinau, a park consultant who has worked there since it was founded and will be on the management team if Ray Greene wins the operations contract. He said it troubled him that the advisory committee had no input from people who know Hawaii’s tourism industry.

Waimea Valley is big enough for culture, history and botany to co-exist with adventure tourism, he said.

The perception in the community that the new ownership and management changed the park is incorrect, he said. Horseback rides, for example, were offered in the valley during the 1950s and all-terrain-vehicle rides began earlier in the 1990s.

There is less staff, and repair and maintenance have suffered, but those are business realities, he said. The 250 jobs, arboretum staff of 30 and cultural events of the past were created by the millions of dollars invested by previous owner Pietsch, he said.

"Everybody wants to go back to then," said Leinau. "But that money doesn’t grow on trees; it has to come in the front door. If people want those things, then there has to be a very viable business plan in place. With things like insurance and maintenance, there is tremendous overhead here."

Leinau said he has watched the park work force grow and shrink, and it could "fall all the way down." Greene’s plans to add attractions such as the lift at the park’s entrance are meant to attract more visitors, which will benefit the arboretum, as well as cultural and educational programs, he said.

"That’s the best plan that I’ve heard," said Leinau. "I would love to continue to work here. I want what’s best for the property and for the people who work here."

How much weight will the recommendations carry when it comes time for city officials to award the contract? Mansho said they are advisory. The first step will be requesting information from groups interested in forming partnerships with Honolulu Hale.

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