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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 21, 2002

Waimea Falls Park still hard to make profitable

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer

When Honolulu took possession of Waimea Falls Park in late February for a bargain basement $5.1 million, it got more than one of the world's most exotic, sacred locations, filled with awe-inspiring ancient, natural and cultural wonders.

Kalai Arnold shows Waimea Falls Park visitors how to dive at a show that features a cliff-diving sequence and hula 'auana performances. The city acquired the park in February.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

It got a paradox.

The 1,875 acres boast the sort of splendor that dazzles tourists and local residents alike and keeps Hollywood producers coming back to film more, yet the park continually fails to attract enough visitors to garner the profits other O'ahu destinations enjoy.

Why has Waimea Falls Park been such a hard sell?

Bob Leinau, who managed Waimea Falls Park throughout its most successful decades, the 1970s and 1980s, says that even when it was O'ahu's third most popular tourist destination, the park rarely turned a profit.

Ray Greene, who has managed the park for the past five years and is running it on a month-to-month lease while the city goes through the process of finding a long-term vendor, says it has been "darn hard getting Waimea Falls Park to the break-even level."

Dana Alden, University of Hawai'i professor of marketing, said that whoever ends up with the Waimea Falls contract will face a real challenge.

"It is not an easy product to develop," he said. "I don't know what the solution is, to be honest. But I can tell you it's a challenge, given the trade-offs."

Before the city tackles the profitability challenge, it must complete the condemnation process through which it took possession of the park from New York investor Christian Wolffer. Wolffer acquired the site in 1996 and placed the property under bankruptcy protection last April.

Wolffer's attempt to sell the park as a private residence in 2000, coupled with community complaints that his management team had neglected the valley's natural, cultural and botanical wonders in an effort to create a Disney-esque adventure park, sounded the warning to City Councilwoman Rene Mansho.

Mansho was among those who led the charge to get the city to acquire the park.

Visitors get a brief hula lesson at the end of the cliff-diving and hula show.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Within the next few months a Circuit Court judge will decide the true market value of the park, which could be over or under the $5.1 million amount held in escrow by the court, said Malcolm Tom, city deputy managing director.

Tom said the city is prepared to pay the fair market value for the land, whatever it turns out to be.

Tonight, the city will hold a public information meeting at the park to outline its intentions for the park and listen to public comment.

Those interested in operating the park can submit a plan by month's end that coincides with the city's objectives, which emphasize the park's natural and cultural aspects and call for management to oversee "botanical gardens, food and gift shops and (provide) recreational, educational and cultural programs. ..."

Tom said he has no idea who will be submitting bids, since the process is open to anyone. But Greene said his Waimea Management LLC, for one, intends to submit a proposal.

"The city would love to own the real estate and have a third party simply run the park to the level they want it operated," said Greene. "Our bid will try to do that and make it economically viable. There has to be a balance between preserving the past and evolving into the future."

Currently, for a $12 kama'aina ticket, residents can spend hours watching hula shows and touring botanical gardens and archaeological sites. They can swim at the falls and, for additional fees, engage in recreational activities such as kayaking, biking or horseback riding.

"At the end of the day, you have to be able to pay the bills," said Greene.

And paying the bills, said marketing expert Alden, could be tough if the park is expected to be self-sustaining.

Alden said Waimea Falls Park has a higher admission fee than other natural alternatives, such as Hanauma Bay. At the same time, it doesn't offer the attractions, entertainment and food of some higher-end destinations, such as the Polynesian Cultural Center.

"But I think it's doable," said Alden, "if we set our expectations at the right level. Perhaps breaking even — or even a small subsidy from the taxpayers — is something that we're willing to live with."

Which is exactly what Diana King, who is with the National Audubon Society, would like to see happen.

The society, said King, will submit a proposal to make Waimea Falls Park the first location in Hawai'i to be part of the nonprofit organization's ambitious 2020 Vision plan, which aims to have Audubon Centers within reach of the entire U.S. population by 2020.

Audubon Centers are natural resources operated by the society that have a strong teaching component built in to inspire visitors to appreciate and protect the natural world.

For example, the emphasis at Waimea Falls would be on education, ecological restoration and cultural preservation, King said. There would be no shows, no entertainment and nothing "wild and crazy."

Each Audubon Center is different and unique to its community. Some have cabins for camping, for example, while others do not. King said the society is still working out the details of how Waimea Falls might operate. Some things are known.

The park's primary target audience, under the society's plan, would be O'ahu residents, because, said King, visitors tend to like things local residents enjoy.

Making a profit would be a "nonexistent motive" if the National Audubon Society were to take over the operation.

"In fact, I expect that the site will lose money and we will be looking for alternate sources of support," said King, who was born and raised in Hawai'i.

"And that's what we do. And we've been doing it for awhile, all over the country."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8038.