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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 14, 2001

OHA bids for Waimea park

By Yasmin Anwar
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs mounted a head-to-head challenge against the city yesterday to buy the sacred ground of Waimea Falls Park.

OHA trustees voted to bid on the property, and agreed to offer $5.2 million, exactly the sum the city has set aside to purchase the 1,875-acre North Shore preserve.

They also voted 5-3 against partnering with the city, which is moving forward with plans to condemn the park and take it over.

Trustees who approved the motion said the purchase would be an ideal way to diversify their assets while carrying out their mission to preserve Hawaiian cultural treasures. But they conceded that anything could change in the months to come.

"At the end of the day, we may end up partnering with the city. But to begin with, we had to take a strong stand," said John Waihe'e IV, the board's most fervent supporter of OHA purchasing the park.

Waihe'e has been lobbying for OHA to acquire the property for about $6 million and turn it into a more authentic Hawaiian cultural preserve.

He wants to steer the tourist attraction off the theme park track and into a more culturally authentic Hawaiian direction.

But the OHA governing board has been torn on the issue, weighing the cost of the venture against its other obligations for the welfare of Native Hawaiians.

Yesterday's vote was enormous validation for Waihe'e, who has become a swing vote on the oft-divided nine-member board where little or nothing can move forward without the approval of five trustees.

The Waimea park's visitor count has declined sharply since its heyday in the late 1980s. Its management team added attractions such as an African Jungle trek and mountain biking trails, and there's a proposal for a Zipline gondola ride that would soar over Waimea Bay and the valley.

New York investor Christian Wolffer saved the lush recreation and conservation area from the auction block in 1996, then put the park up for sale in August for $25 million. In April, he placed it under bankruptcy protection, along with his other O'ahu venture, Sea Life Park.

Councilwoman Rene Mansho, whose district includes the North Shore, proposed that the city purchase the park after hearing her constituents' concerns about the fate of the property.

The city subsequently set aside $5.2 million for the purchase and has begun steps to condemn the property.

Waihe'e, meanwhile, decided that the park would be a good investment for OHA, which has most of its $300 million portfolio tied up in the stock market. His original proposal, which included paying up to $6 million for the property, was too vague for OHA trustee Clayton Hee and did not absolve the agency of certain financial risks.

So to get the support of Hee and his allies, Rowena Akana and Charles Ota, Waihe'e agreed to substitute his motion for one written by Hee, which appears to lessen OHA's financial liability. Linda Dela Cruz also voted in favor of the motion.

It authorizes the OHA administrator to "reallocate OHA trust assets to acquire Waimea Falls Park, in the amount of the condemnation price, free of any and all existing debts including but not limited to mortgages owed and any liens to the property included in the city and county of Honolulu budget."

However, Oswald Stender, who voted against the motion, along with Donald Cataluna and OHA Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona, said it could cost OHA about $200,000 a month to run the park. He said a certified, professional appraisal needs to be conducted before OHA consider taking on such a venture.

"We don't know what we're getting into," Stender said.

For the park's management, OHA's interest is heartening, although they would not say which owner they would prefer.

"It's gratifying to see interest from OHA in Waimea Falls Park," said park general manager Ray Greene.

Kai McDurmin, the Realtor representing Wolffer, said it could take several months for a serious bidding war to begin. First, interested parties must appraise the property and assess liability and feasibility factors.

She said there are other prospective buyers but would not identify them.