WAILUA — The excitement over recent reports of outside interests looking at a Coco Palms redevelopment has officials giving tempered but optimistic updates.
Although rumors that developers with a major project are moving to purchase the property remain unsubstantiated, supporters of the development are speaking cautiously but optimistically.
Former Mayor Maryanne Kusaka, who is now a Realtor, is said to be involved in negotiations on behalf of interested parties.
She said it is too soon in the process to be releasing any information regarding a development.
Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. said that moving forward on the demolition and remediation of the Coco Palms property is an important goal of his administration. He said the future of that property is important to everyone on the island.
“We are willing to assist any prospective buyer to the extent that we legally can and are hopeful that these latest discussions will result in a transaction that will put the Coco Palms property on that path,” Carvalho said.
“It’s important to remember that any redevelopment of the property will involve Planning Commission and building permit processes,” he added. “So to comment or speculate on the possibilities beyond that wouldn’t be appropriate at this time.”
Patrick Duddy, of Relax Hotels and Spas and Maxum Construction of Hawai‘i LLC, has been behind the scenes of Coco Palms development for years.
He is reportedly working with as-yet-unnamed investors interested in the property.
“This project is a great opportunity and once we get investors to pull the trigger, we can bring back an incredible property for the people of Kaua‘i,” Duddy said. “The mayor of the island is an absolute prince who really wants to see it built.”
Duddy said he is working with various groups to try to bring the project to fruition. There are huge challenges, he said, from incorporating existing entitlements and permits with their vision to move forward.
“It has not happened yet,” Duddy said. “We are in constant communication.”
The resort zoning area is for 16.4 acres, while the 17-acre coconut grove is conservation-zoned land leased from the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources.
A major issue, Duddy said, is that the property is below the FEMA flood plane and likely could not be insured in its current condition. He said there is a good chance of getting a project started if the groups work through the due diligence process.
“There are lot of hurdles to leap,” Duddy said. “It is not an easy project, to say the least.”
Right now, Duddy said interested parties are closing and putting everything in escrow. They have looked at the property and are working out terms with the people who control the land, he said.
Duddy said he also has a financial interest in seeing the project move forward. He is hopeful that something will happen by the end of the year.
The property belonged to Hawaiian royalty for centuries, and the first hotel in its rich history was opened by Queen Deborah Kapule in the mid-1800s.
William Lindeman bought the property and planted a coconut grove on leased land in 1896. His family ran the lodge until the mid-20th century.
Lyle “Gus” Guslander took over the 24-room Coco Palms Lodge in 1953. He and manager Grace Buscher would eventually marry and see the hotel expand to nearly 400 rooms and cottages by the 1970s.
Guslander owned hotels on other islands and operated a tourism package under the umbrella banner Island Holidays. He continued as vice president of the Hawaiian company AMFAC after it acquired Island Holidays in the early 1980s.
He died in 1984, and Wailua Associates purchased the property in 1985.
His widow continued to run the hotel until 1986. She resided in a nearby Wailua apartment until she died in 2000.
None of several subsequent owners were successful in completing plans to renovate or redevelop the property.
Hurricane ‘Iniki severely damaged the property in 1992 and it fell into disrepair as insurance claim battles went on for years.
The County Planning Commission denied a health and fitness spa project in 2007. The most recent effort to build a condominium, housing and hotel project was abandoned soon after, with another hotel project by the current owner, Phillip Ross and Coco Palms Ventures, said to be derailed by the economic downfall in 2008.
The resort plans lagged and the county granted an extension of permits in 2009 to allow the owners to demolish and construct by 2013. The current permit is to build 200 multi-family dwellings and 48 hotel units, along with rebuilding the Seashell Restaurant, a pedestrian bridge over Kuhio Highway and traffic improvements.
The property remains up for sale with the project not showing any signs of progress.
As Coco Palms lay dormant, other work in the area has drawn protests as burials and artifacts continue to be uncovered during construction digs. There are natural wetlands on the property that parallels the mouth of the Wailua River. It was once the site of many royal dwellings and religious structures.
The fishpond was man-made and has taken a variety of shapes through the centuries. It was designated in the Hawaii Register of Historic Places in 2009.
Nonprofit groups have fought to protect the property and to require any project to preserve and ensure public to cultural and historic areas.
Friends of Coco Palms, an informal group committed to protecting the history and culture of Coco Palms, began meeting in 2007. The Hawaiian Islands Land Trust serves as fiscal sponsor.
Contemporary concerns also focus on preserving the history of the world-famous resort. The property was a location for several well-known movie scenes and many celebrities were regular guests at the hotel. Thousands of couples were married at the lagoon and honeymooned at the hotel and cottages.
In 2009, arson heavily damaged the retail annex that fronts the highway. The site has more recently become the target of vandals, copper thieves and ornament hunters.
The only allowed activity on the property recently has been the Hawai‘i Movie Tours by Bob Jasper. Each weekday at 2 p.m., for $20 — or free to Kaua‘i residents on Fridays — he offers a tour and storytelling of the safe areas of the movie sites, grove, lagoon and the main lobby with its roof ripped back as a living reminder of the destructive force of Hurricane ‘Iniki.
• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or firstname.lastname@example.org.