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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 12:13 p.m., Friday, November 28, 2003

Developer Chris Hemmeter dies at 64

Advertiser Staff

Chris Hemmeter, the developer and dreamer whose huge hotel projects in the 1980s made him one of the most influential people ever to do business in Hawai'i, died Thanksgiving morning. He was 64.

Hemmeter died at his home in Brentwood, Calif., surrounded by family members, said his son, Mark.

Hemmeter had been battling Parkinsonís disease and various forms of cancer since the mid-1990s. Earlier this year, his doctor gave him six months to live, and Hemmeter confidently predicted that he would continue to prove his doctors wrong.

During a visit to Honolulu in October, Hemmeter celebrated his birthday and surviving seven months.

"Iím in direct competition with this cancer, and itís either ... going to win or Iím going to win," he said. "Iím determined to win. Iíve beat it by a month, and I suspect I can beat it by years."

The developer, who considered Hawai'i home though he had been back only three or four times since he left 13 years ago, is best known for the extreme ó some would say outrageous ó lavishness of Hawai'i hotels he built in the 1980s.

Projects such as the Westin Kaua'i, Hyatt Regency Waikoloa and the Westin Maui helped publicize the stateís visitor industry and attract high-spending Japanese tourists that fueled an economic boom. Hemmeter resorts, though criticized by some, were studied by developers around the world for the room prices they could command.

"Chris was a man of great vision and energy," said former Hawai'i Gov. Ben Cayetano. "More than anyone else, he changed the nature of resort development in Hawai'i. The four- and five-star hotels on the Big Island and Maui are the products of his work."

Before he began building hotels, the Washington, D.C.-born Hemmeter thought he would make a name for himself managing them.

In 1962, at age 23, the top graduate of Cornell Universityís School of Hotel Administration accepted a job at Sheratonís Royal Hawaiian Hotel as a management trainee. Ten months into the three-year program, Hemmeter told the hotel manager he wanted to own hotels instead.

Asked where heíd get the money, Hemmeter recalled responding: "I have no idea, but somehow Iíll put it together. If I have to be a bartender or whatever, thatís my goal, thatís my dream, thatís what I want to be."

He quit, borrowed some money, and with partners developed two fancy restaurants, the Top of the I and Pier Seven at the Ilikai Hotel. He went on to develop more restaurants, which he reportedly sold for $1.5 million in 1965.

After an unsuccessful bid to buy the land under what is now the Sheraton Waikiki, Hemmeter partnered to develop the Hawaiian Regent Hotel, which opened in 1971.

Then he convinced Bank of Hawaii and a consortium of lenders to finance construction of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki. At a cost of $100 million, the 1,260-room twin-tower hotel atop a retail center represented the largest construction project and private loan in Hawai'i.

Hawaii Business magazine named Hemmeter its 1977 businessman of the year, and the developer went on to build more creative hotels with eye-popping excess in architecture, art, boat shuttles, waterfalls, pools, animal collections and other features.

"He always went above and beyond," said Cathy George, a friend and real estate broker who recalled Hemmeter had brought in an artisan from Monaco to do trim work on a $3.8 million house she sold him in 1985.

Hemmeter served on the boards of powerful organizations in Hawai'i, among them First Hawaiian Bank, Punahou School, the Hawai'i Visitors Bureau and Hawai'i Hotel Association.

Hemmeter made unsuccessful bids to become a state legislator, buy Hawaiian Airlines, acquire Bank of Honolulu, and rescue the World Football League.

For his real estate projects ó which included the Hyatt Regency Maui, Kingís Alley shopping center, the State Office Tower and renovation of the Armed Forces YMCA ó Hemmeterís timing was generally impeccable. He sold most of his properties to speculative Japanese investors who paid tens of millions of dollars over initial development costs.

In 1988, Forbes magazine listed Hemmeter as the 389th wealthiest person in America, with $225 million in assets.

Even the Westin Kauai, damaged by Hurricane 'Iniki in 1992 and repossessed by the bank, was a project on which he said he made millions.

The developer was flying high, literally, in his own private 737, traveling the world, hosting presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan at his Kahala and Black Point homes, pledging $2 million to lure the Americaís Cup yacht race to Hawai'i and generously giving to philanthropic causes.

But his string of business successes was cut short in 1990 when a rival development proposal beat his $1.3 billion plan to redevelop the area surrounding Aloha Tower.

Disappointed, Hemmeter left the state to pursue what he viewed as better opportunities on the Mainland, where he saw plenty of capital and potential profits in casino development.

The Hawai'i developer convinced the city of New Orleans to lease him city property and a license for a $1 billion casino.

The project struggled financially and was forced into bankruptcy in 1995, before it was completed. Hemmeter, who blamed government corruption for the projectís demise, also endured the failure of two riverboat casinos in New Orleans and bankruptcies of his Bushwhackers Casinos in Colorado and a publicly traded real estate investment trust he headed.

In 1997, Hemmeter was forced to seek personal bankruptcy, reporting $87 million in debts and $720,000 in assets.

He regarded the New Orleans debacle as his greatest triumph ó for winning the development rights ó and his worst experience, because of medical problems he associates with stress. The episode also wiped out the immense wealth he had made in Hawai'i.

"Thirty-five years of work ... that was the end of it," he said. "We ended up paying a terrible price."

The developer said he wanted to rebuild his career, but by the end of the decade, maintaining his health had become a priority.