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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, November 29, 2003

Developer Hemmeter dead of liver cancer at age 64

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Chris Hemmeter, the developer and dreamer whose name was synonymous with super-sized projects in the 1970s and 1980s and who became one of the most influential people ever to do business in Hawai'i, died Thanksgiving morning. He was 64.

Hemmeter — who last month said of his battle with cancer, "I can beat it by years" — died surrounded by relatives and friends at his home in Brentwood, Calif.

Hemmeter was once as familiar in Hawai'i as any politician or entertainer. He was the state's first — and possibly last — businessman-as-celebrity, Hawai'i's own Donald Trump at a time when bigger was always better and excess was nothing to apologize for.

He developed restaurants, retail stores, hotels and, eventually, such destinations as the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Waikiki and luxury resorts on Maui, Kaua'i and the Big Island.

Mark Hemmeter said his father, who had fought Parkinson's disease and cancer since the mid-1990s, died peacefully and was not in pain.

"He waited until Thanksgiving morning, which was his favorite holiday," said Mark Hemmeter, who heads Hemmeter Cos., based in Boulder, Colo. "It was a beautiful morning in Los Angeles and the whole family was around him. You couldn't pick a better way to go at home. All the children and grandchildren — everybody was in town."

The developer considered Hawai'i home though he had been back only three or four times since he left 13 years ago. His last visit was in October, to celebrate his birthday with his family and Hawai'i friends.

Christopher Bagwell Hemmeter was born in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8, 1939, and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He graduated with honors from Cornell University with a degree in hotel management and landed in Hawai'i in 1962.

The Hyatt Regency hotel complex was part of the Hemmeter Center in Waikiki, which opened in 1976 at a cost of $100 million.

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He briefly accepted a job as a management trainee at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, but soon resigned to pursue a dream of developing and owning resorts in the Islands. Those who knew him spoke of his infectious, fun-loving attitude. Mostly, though, they reflected on his vision and creativity.

"I remember when the Hyatt Regency went up this very young man would talk to us about ideas he had that just seemed almost unbelievable," longtime friend and real-estate broker Cathy George recalled yesterday. "And then they always started happening. And you wondered, 'How did he do this one?'

"And the projects just got bigger and bigger and bigger."

Hemmeter's lavish — some would say ostentatious — projects in the 1980s came to symbolize the pinnacle of Hawai'i's 30-year economic expansion after statehood in 1959. His designs all seemed to grow bigger and more extravagant with each new deal, incorporating endless marble corridors, brass-plated adornments and splashing waterfalls.

"Chris was a man of great vision and energy," former Hawai'i Gov. Ben Cayetano said yesterday. "More than anyone else, he changed the nature of resort development in Hawai'i."

His projects helped publicize the state's visitor industry and attract high-spending Japanese tourists that fueled an economic boom. Hemmeter resorts, though criticized by some as gaudy and lacking in Hawaiian character, were studied by developers around the world for the room prices they could command.

"In my mind he revolutionized the hotel industry — not only in Hawai'i, but in many parts of the world," said Larry Johnson, former chairman and CEO of Bank of Hawaii, and one of Hemmeter's closest friends here.

"Each of the resorts he created was an experience, with unbelievable art, waterfalls, animals and birds," Johnson said. "He wasn't necessarily building for the upper crust, he was building for the average guy who really hadn't had a chance to experience these new and innovative things."

In 1988, Forbes magazine named Hemmeter one of the 400 richest Americans, with $225 million in assets. Although he had an affinity with the average Joe, he also hobnobbed with the rich, famous and powerful. He once said he wanted to be known as the "only person who rides in a Rolls-Royce in a dirty shirt, sweaty Bermudas and goes barefoot."

"He was the kind of guy who could walk with kings and the common man," Johnson said. "He was a good friend of Jimmy Carter's, and Ronald Reagan stayed in his home. But he treated the hotel janitor the same as presidents."

The Hemmeter Building, now the site of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, was once the Armed Forces YMCA and became Hemmeter's headquarters after he renovated the building.

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Before he began building hotels, Hemmeter thought he would make a name for himself managing them.

Only months into the three-year program as a management trainee at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Hemmeter told the manager he wanted to own hotels instead.

Asked where he'd get the money, Hemmeter recalled responding: "I have no idea, but somehow I'll put it together. If I have to be a bartender or whatever, that's my goal, that's my dream, that's 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 persuaded Bank of Hawaii and a consortium of lenders to finance construction of the Hemmeter Center in Waikiki, which would house a Hyatt Regency hotel and various retail and commercial businesses. Opened in 1976 at a cost of $100 million, the 1,260-room twin-tower hotel dominated Kalakaua Avenue and 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 hotels with eye-popping excess in architecture, art, boat shuttles, waterfalls, pools, animal collections and other features.

For his real-estate projects — which included the Hyatt Regency Maui, King's Alley shopping center, the State Office Tower and renovation of the Armed Forces YMCA — Hemmeter's timing was generally impeccable. At the height of Japanese real-estate speculation in the late 1980s, he sold most of his properties for tens of millions of dollars over initial development costs.

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 legislator, buy Hawaiian Airlines, acquire Bank of Honolulu, and rescue the World Football League.

His fortunes ebbed and flowed in unison with Hawai'i's own. For three decades his financial ascent more or less paralleled that of America's newest state. Then, in 1990, as Hawai'i's economy was entering a protracted downturn, Hemmeter lost out on a billion-dollar plan to develop what would become Aloha Tower Marketplace.

Angered and growing more disillusioned with the business climate in Hawai'i, Hemmeter left the state and would never again see the success he had enjoyed for nearly 30 years.

Convinced his next fortune awaited him in New Orleans, he sold officials on the idea of leasing him city property to develop a $1 billion casino. In 1997, after several years of financial struggle and the failure of more than one of his Louisiana casino investments, Hemmeter filed for personal bankruptcy.

By the time of his bankruptcy, his health had begun to fail. He developed Parkinson's in 1995 and, after that, cancer of the liver. Those who knew him said that up to the beginning of this month he believed he could beat cancer. But about two weeks ago he had begun to accept the inevitable.

Hemmeter is survived by his wife of 25 years, Patricia; seven children, Mark and wife, Lisa; Chris and fiancee, Debi; Katie and husband, Cully; Kelley; Shane; Brendan and wife, Brook; and Holli; his sister Sally Younge and husband, Eric; brother Dr. Mead Hemmeter and wife, Mari-Jo; sister-in-law Karen Cook; and six grandchildren, Taylor, Maddy, Annabelle, Austin, Ryan and Quinn.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to the Christopher B. and Patricia K. Hemmeter Kahaola Hospice Foundation at 1164 Bishop St., Suite 800, Honolulu, HI 96813.

Private family services for Hemmeter will be Dec. 7.

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