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Kailua Memories

A look back at some of Kailua’s most evocative places.

BY DENNIS HOLLIER

Some of the images featured in this article will be in a forthcoming book on Kailua, published by the Kailua Historical Society. Special thanks to Barbara Pope Book Design.


The view from Alala point towards Lanikai, circa late 1920s or 1930s.

PHOTO COURTESY OF HAWAII STATE ARCHIVES

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF ERLING HEDEMANN, JR.

 

The junction of Oneawa and Kailua Road has long been the physical center of Kailua town. For a generation, though, the Kailua Theater was probably its cultural center. A caption on the back of this photograph, taken the late 1930s, indicates that movie tickets cost 12 cents. Kailua Theater was owned by John Magoon, who also owned the Kaneohe Theater. Erling Hedemann, who grew up in Kailua, remembers that you had to have a mosquito punk (repellant) under your seat at Kaneohe Theater, “but Kailua Theater was high class.”

Across the street, roughly where McKenna Ford stands today, the old Kanetake Garage presided over the town’s inbound traffic for decades. Well into the 1950s, dairy cows grazed in the field out back. Arby’s and the Firestone store have replaced the theater. But the careful observer will note a familiar triangular median in the roadway. The iconic banyans? They’re visible in the old photo; barely visible against the white of the movie house, you can make out the first sapling against the white of the movie house.

 

PHOTO BY HEATHER TITUS

 

Jean’s Bakery

 

 

A couple of months ago, a reader wrote in to the local paper asking if anyone knew the recipe for Boston cream pie from the old Jean’s Bakery. The memory of desserts is a persistent one. Jean’s Bakery (seen here in December, 1955) was a Kailua institution, but it’s been closed for more than 30 years. In a photograph dated 1951, the bakery staff stand behind a gleaming counter in the original store in the back of the old Piggly Wiggly store on Oneawa. In 1955, George Abe, the owner, bought the lot across the street on Uluniu. He built his home in the back and a new bakery and soda fountain in front. There, the Abe family continued to sell cakes and pies and fountain drinks for nearly another 20 years.

Kailua Town

PHOTO COURTESY OF ERLING HEDDEMANN, JR.

For nearly four decades, the Kailua Tavern, on the corner of Oneawa and Kuulei, served as the town’s only real night spot. According to longtime Kailua resident Erling Hedemann, “People came to the tavern all the way from Honolulu. They say that scurrilous cowboys tied their horses out front—and I include my scurrilous brother in that group.” Despite the cowboys, there was a genteel side to Kailua Tavern, too, which also had a restaurant and a dance floor. Alberta Hussey, once the vocalist with the Gigi Royce Orchestra at the Royal Hawaiian, sang at the Kailua Tavern with the Audino and Allen Band after World War II started. By then, the tavern was known as the Coconut Grove Inn.

 

Kalapawai Market

In 1941, Hussey lived with a cousin on Kalaeloa Road and remembers walking barefoot to work along Kailua’s sandy roads, carrying her shoes in her hands. “On breaks,” she says nostalgically, “I used to go across to the Harada Store and have a half a cantaloupe and a vanilla ice cream.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF ERLING HEDEMANN, JR.

Kalapawai Market has catered to the residents of Lanikai and along Kailua Beach for more than 70 years. The original owner, Richard Wong, knew what his customers needed, and developed strong loyalties among them. When Maurice Sullivan built the first Foodland nearby, some residents were excited to finally have a real supermarket in the neighborhood. Others, though, were alarmed. Peggy Bredesen, whose family has lived on the ridge above Lanikai since 1931, notes that they could see the great domed structure over the treetops. “It was the biggest eyesore,” she says. More importantly, they were concerned that the new supermarket spelled the end of their old friends at Kalapawai.

But you should never underestimate the power of customer loyalty. Ironically, although Sullivan went on to create a Foodland empire, at this location it faltered. The Kalapawai Market, under the new ownership of Don Dymond, flourishes still.

 

Matsuda Store

PHOTO COURTESY OF HAWAII STATE ARCHIVES

In the 1930s, when downtown Kailua was still mostly watermelon patches, the area’s population center was farther up Kailua Road, among the taro fields and rice paddies of Maunawili. During this era, the Matsuda Store, near the Waimanalo junction on the old Pali Road, served as the Kailua store. Area farmers visited for everything from gasoline for their cars to feed for their livestock. Even after the Matsuda Store closed, the building—now a part of Kaneohe Ranch—remained stand-ing alongside a dead-end fragment of the old Pali Road behind Castle Hospital.

Martin Knotts, whose Diamond K Ranch still runs about 60 head of cattle along the fringes of Kawainui Marsh, lived in the old house for its last 20 years. “In June of 2000, I finally had it torn down,” he says, “because the termites were in there so bad, and I couldn’t get a long-term lease.” Today, though the state now owns the land, Knotts still lives in a trailer right behind the foundations of the old Matsuda Store. Only a small concrete plinth, a remnant of the old gas pumps, gives any clue to the store’s former location.

Nishikawa Fruit Stand

The row of churches along Kailua Road has an air of permanence. It’s the nature of churches. But, for most of its history, this section of Kailua was agricultural. Around the 1920s, Issei farmers began to grow fruit and vegetables and chickens in farms along Kailua Road. Their children, because their English was better, sold the produce from popular roadside fruit stands.

The most successful of these was the Kailua Fruit Stand, owned by the Nishikawa family, which stood about where the First Presbyterian Church is today. Kinji Nishikawa and his wife, Some, grew avocados, papayas, grapefruit and vegetables. Sandy Kimura, their granddaughter, says famous people, like Duke Kahanamoku, used to come from town to visit the fruit stand. “John Burns came every Sunday, before he was governor,” she says. But, around 1959, the Nishikawa lease expired; and, after 25 years serving Kailua, most of the farm was bulldozed to make way for development. According to Kimura, though, you can still find a few of the old Nishikawa fruit trees strewn through the Kukanono neighborhood.

Amii Kahikina, whose Amii World Travel Agency on Oneawa occupies a plot of land that’s been in the family for nearly 70 years, remembers that Boston cream pie. “It was like sponge cake with powdered sugar on it instead of ganache.” Today, the old building has had an addition at the front, and houses a new “old institution”: the Chinese Garden restaurant. But the square outline of Jean’s Bakery is still discernible in the L-shaped building, and old-timers passing by on Uluniu sometimes still find themselves craving that Boston cream pie.

Dennis Hollier grew up in Enchanted Lake and writes frequently for HONOLULU Magazine.

 

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At Work on the Bay

DENNIS HOLLIER, PHOTOGRAPHY BY KARIN KOVALSKY

Captain of the Nissei

The Nisei

It’s still well before dawn, and the crew of the Nisei sit quietly in their skiff, killing time. Bowed by the weight of the tide, 150 feet of fine-gauge net stretches from the stern to shore, its end tended by a crewman on the jetty. Another 150 feet is still stashed in the deep belly of the skiff and serves as a lounge for the crew there. Now and then, the captain, Hiroshige Uehara, nervously shines a flashlight on the water to see how the catch is going. The rest of the crew, mostly Okinawans like the captain, pull the hoods of their slickers over their heads against the drizzle. We’re waiting for the nehu to come in.

These tiny fish are the last commercial fishery on Kaneohe Bay. They school in great numbers there, and, for generations, aku boats have come to catch them for bait. Aku fishermen need millions of nehu. Instead of dragging nets like bottom fishermen, or using baited hooks like longliners, traditional aku fishermen hook skipjack using long poles and barbless hooks. To get the fish to bite, they chum the waters with swarms of live bait. Without the nehu of Kaneohe Bay, the old way of aku fishing would die. But the old way is a hard one. Once, dozens of aku boats set their nets in these shallows; the pier at Heeia Kea Boat Harbor was homeport for more than 20 of them. Now, only two aku boats are left: the Nisei and the old wood sampan, Kula Kai.

Like many fishermen, the Okinawan crew of the Nisei are a taciturn bunch. Although they’ve worked in Hawaii for decades, they speak English haltingly and are shy to use it. David Soto, the Nisei’s engineer, the only local in the crew, acts as a spokesman. He points out that the crew is experienced. “The youngest man on this boat is 52,” he says, “and that’s me.” He jokes about working with Okinawans, but he’s been with the Nisei since it was launched 13 years ago, following Uehara from his previous boat. Most of the crew have fished together for years. Soto makes an excellent guide. Out in the skiff, the only noise is the soft baritone of Soto’s voice as he explains nehu fishing to me. Then, the captain shines his light on the net one last time and nods to the crew. He turns to me and smiles. “Plenty fish,” he says.

It takes all hands to pull in a haul of nehu. We start by heading to the jetty to collect the crewman there, veering the rest of the net as we go. Once the circle of the net is closed, the captain kills the engine again, and Soto pulls on a scuba tank and slips overboard. He’s the penner; underwater, he uses his body to pen the edges of the net up against the side of the skiff so none of the fish can escape through the gap there. At the stern, the captain paces the haul, pulling in the head rope of the net float by float. Eisho, the captain’s brother, stands behind him, helping haul on the head rope, pausing every so often to organize the long net as it comes into the boat. In the center of the skiff, the brothers Hiromasa and Tetsushi Tamashiro grab for the belly of the net, shaking the nehu back into the water as they pull. They’re helped by Quentin Gohier, an old Hawaiian man from the Heeia docks who sometimes volunteers for these nehu runs.

Slowly, the pile of net under their feet grows as the circle diminishes. The nehu seethe inside. There are millions of them—so many that the weight of them begins to sink the net. Silvery swarms flush over the tops of the floats. Many more leap over the net to open water. Outside the net, schools of papio stir up the surface in a frenzy over the escaping baitfish. To keep the net from sinking, the crew stick the ends of stout bamboo poles under the float rope, cantilevering the net over the gunwale. The weight of the nehu bends the poles. When most of the net is aboard, the crew pull in the foot rope, which closes the bottom of the net, making a bag of fish about the same size as the 26-foot skiff. Soto surfaces out of the roiling turmoil of nehu and scampers back aboard.

There are eight live bait wells built into the aft deck of the Nisei. Each is about 10 feet deep by six feet wide. Sometimes, it takes two or three days’ work to fill them. This haul, though, is astonishing. The skiff pulls alongside the Nisei, penning the net between the two boats, and some of the crew jump aboard. Once on deck, they hand down large stainless steel buckets one by one, and the crew in the skiff use dip nets to fill them with bait. Then, the buckets are handed back aboard and emptied into the bait wells. Now and then, a crewman reaches into the seething net to grab an akule or a papio that’s been accidentally caught with the nehu and flings it back out into the Bay. The nehu are bounty enough.

The waters of Kaneohe Bay used to provide a livelihood for many of those who lived along its shores. Dozens of fishponds once fattened moi and mullet. At low tide, limu pickers waded in the shallows. Fishermen poked in the holes of the fringing reef for hee and lobster. They plied their nets across the tide for akule, aweoweo and amaama. On old maps, you can still see the names of shore-side families jutting out into the bay as if their kuleana stretched to the bounty of the reef. But the fisheries of Kaneohe Bay have collapsed. Pollution and overfishing and silting have taken the profit out of fishing, and the Nisei and the Kula Kai are the only commercial boats that still venture into the bay.

The Coral Queen

Tour boats dominate the commerce of the bay. Most sail from the pier in Heeia Kea, where a ragtag fleet of catamarans and trimarans shuttle tourists out to the reefs. Although most of these boats have a utilitarian look, there’s a surprising charm to them. Some of them have spindly masts and booms, meant to give the impression they’re Polynesian sailing canoes. Others have had their spars removed, and they seem to squat on the water. But all of them are motorboats, and are slab-sided, garishly painted and ungainly. Nevertheless, when they’re nosed up to the sandbar on a sunny morning or moored haphazardly along the fringing reef in the dark just before a storm, or tied at the docks in the glassy waters of a Kona breeze, they still convey a sense of nostalgia for old times, and are beautiful.

Five companies operate commercial boats at Heeia, but the two largest, KBOS and Tropical Ocean Sports, account for most of the tourist trade. Between them, they manage more than a dozen vessels and employ nearly 50 people, including captains, mates, deckhands, tour guides, dive masters and hostesses. In all, the tour boats of the bay provide the livelihood for perhaps 100 men and women.

Among the tour boats, the Coral Queen, a plywood, glass-bottom trimaran, is the oldest. It has been ferrying passengers out to the reefs for more than 35 years. Today, the Coral Queen belongs to Tropical Ocean Sports. With a bright blue paint job, it matches the company’s larger boats. Unlike those others, though, the Coral Queen doesn’t cater to the tourist trade. Mike Nolan, the main captain of the Coral Queen, says, “Most of our business is local. We do a lot of preschool groups like UH Labs and Kamaaina Kids. We do a lot of ‘Make a Wish,’ too.” Over the years, thousands of Hawaii’s children have gotten their first glimpse of Kaneohe Bay’s reefs through the stout glass boxes in her main cabin.

Nolan has worked on many of the tour boats in Hawaii, and has spent most of the last 15 years on the bay. One of the biggest changes he’s seen has been in the way the state regulates the tour boats. In the old days, tour operators ran Jet-Skis and ski boats and dive platforms willy-nilly on the bay. But residents complained, and now, the Department of Land and Natural Resources restricts each tour operator to discrete zones called Ocean Recreation Management Areas, or ORMAs. “Some companies,” Nolan explains, “offer highly active tours, like Jet-Skis and banana boats.” These companies have to buy permits for their own ORMA. Other operations offer snorkeling or kayaks, but no motorized rides. These companies have their own ORMAs too, and much of the bay is divided into territories by tour boat companies.

The Coral Queen is the only glass-bottom boat on the Bay. It harkens back to an old tradition: The Coral Gardens, another glass-bottom boat, was the first tour boat on Kaneohe Bay. In the early 1900s, it took passengers out to ogle the reefs off Mokapu—reefs since dredged to make the runways for the Marine base. This bit of nostalgia, along with a kind of squat charm, made the Coral Queen attractive to me, so one afternoon, I joined in as it took a group from a Manoa elementary school out for a cruise.

The Coral Queen normally operates with a crew of three. On this day, Ty Fu, the young relief captain, is at the helm. Marvin Engoing, a large, doughy man with a wispy beard and a ponytail, is the crew. Rhonda Stewart, an enthusiastic woman who’s worked on the boat for many years, is the education director and is in charge of the children.

Once the teachers have the school group hustled below, Engoing slips the dock lines and Fu quietly spins the Coral Queen off the pier and heads out into the bay. Stewart begins to regale the children with stories about the natural history of Kaneohe Bay.

There’s a broad shelf at the forward end of the pilot house where an ad hoc nature center has accumulated: the shells of three different kinds of conch; a cowrie shell; a desiccated slipper lobster; an assortment of corals; the splayed shells of pearl oysters; corroded and coral-encrusted 50-mm bullet casings; the jaw of a hammerhead shark. In the main cabin, six glass-bottom boxes stand like cabinetry. The children peer through them, watching the coral rubble sweep past as we motor off.

Once we reach the reef patches off Coconut Island, Fu kills the engine and lets the boat drift slowly in six or seven feet of water. While the children crowd around the viewing boxes in the main cabin and marvel at the coral below, up on deck Engoing breaks up loaves of stale bread to throw over the side. Schools of yellow tang and striped angelfish swarm to the chum, drawing oohs and ahs from the children. Then Engoing, as the newest member of the crew, prepares a surprise. “Good thing I brought towel,” he says. “I gotta swim under the boat.” Stewart keeps the kids distracted below while he dons a mask and slips quietly overboard. There’s a burst of laughter from the children as he drifts into view under the Coral Queen. Floating past on his back, he waves to them, his ponytail undulating like limu.

For many of these children, this is their first time on a boat. “Despite being an island state,” Stewart says, “Hawaii has the lowest incidence of boat ownership in the country.” It speaks to a lost relationship—a sad lack of connection between the students and the sea that surrounds them. Passing Coconut Island on the way back to the dock, Stewart gets the teachers to lead the children in the Gilligan’s Island theme song. The teachers sing enthusiastically. None of the children seem to know the words.

Makani Olu

Science and education provide the livelihood for many of those who still work on the bay. Perhaps the best example is the sail-training program on the schooner Makani Olu. Matt Claybaugh, the director of the Marimed Foundation, which owns the Makani Olu, has an abiding belief in the healing power of the sea. Through a program called Holopono, Marimed attempts to rehabilitate at-risk kids, taking them directly from the courts or juvenile detention and putting them to work aboard the Makani Olu. “It’s the gift of a change in perspective,” Claybaugh says. Claybaugh views the Makani Olu as a wilderness program. He knows the sea can be hard, and the stress can sometimes break down the tough reserve of the kids in the program. “That’s the counseling moment,” Claybaugh says. “You need to be akamai to that. Otherwise, you’re just sailing.”

The Makani Olu is a 96-foot, three-masted, staysail schooner. Like all schooners, it takes a rat’s nest of lines to manage the sails. When the Holopono program takes groups of kids to sea, they have to literally learn the ropes. They go on five-day, round-trip cruises to the Neighbor Islands, where they usually also participate in community projects. At sea, the kids work the ship, standing watches and taking turns at the helm. Even so, it takes a professional crew of five to sail the Makani Olu: a captain, a mate and three hands—surely the last professional sailors on the bay.

The pilot house contains a mini natural history museum for young students to explore.
After a recent charter trip for an Elderhostel group, I volunteered to help move the boat from Aloha Tower back to the bay. The crew is new, and I’m eager to see them at work. When I arrive at the dock, I find a full complement of five crewmen aboard. Jon Michienzi, the captain, sailed with the Makani Olu several years ago. He and the first mate, Ben Hopkins, have recently arrived from the tall ship Amistad. The other crewmen also seem to be experienced. But my main impression is how young they all are. Even so, we pull away from the dock without incident and set out to sea. Michienzi predicts a six-hour passage.

The trip turns out to be more boisterous than expected. The trades gather strength as we leave Honolulu Harbor, and by the time we make Koko Head, they’re blowing hard on the nose. Even motor-sailing, our progress is slow. At first, the ride is exhilarating. But we have to tack far out into the Molokai Channel, and the swells build and become confused. Many of the passengers become seasick. In the cabin, loose gear flies from one side to the other. The young crew becomes more subdued as the passage turns into real work. This is sailing in Hawaii. Even after we finally round Makapuu and begin the downhill run along the windward coast, everyone is obviously looking forward to the end of the trip.

Darkness sets in as we reach Kaneohe Bay. The trip from Honolulu Harbor was a long slog, but most of the real work is still ahead. In the failing light, we wrestle down the sails, furl them on their booms and get their covers on them. By the time we reach the Makani Olu’s mooring, we need the spotlight to find the buoy. The wind is still strong and it takes several passes before the crew manages to grab the mooring line with the boathook—only to find the lines are tangled and we blow off again. Finally, a couple crewmen launch the ship’s tender and manage to untangle the lines and get one aboard. The Makani Olu is moored. In the end, the passage from Aloha Tower takes 12 hours.

After shuttling ashore in the inflatable with the other passengers, I stand in the shallows and watch Hopkins head back through the dark to the Makani Olu. No doubt, the captain wants to discuss the mooring troubles with the crew. But I’m struck once again with the miracle that, against all odds, young people still go to sea. The idea makes me smile. Boats and the wind and snarled lines will always give sailors trouble. But, if an old schooner like the Makani Olu can still make a go of it, perhaps there’s still hope for those who make a living on Kaneohe Bay.

Freelance writer Dennis Hollier grew up in Enchanted Lake. His last piece for HONOLULU, in our July issue, was on a downtown barber school.

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Getting Your Hands Dirty

Far back in Oahu’s Makiki Valley, where the stream chuckles through the lush grounds of the Hawaii Nature Center, Ena Sroat kneels and gently hefts a hibiscus sapling into a shallow hole.
“This is a kokio [hibiscus],” she says, using her fingers to shovel soil around its roots. “When it blooms, it has brilliant orange flowers.”

By now, the small group of visitors listening to Sroat knows that the kokio is an endangered native plant, one that’s become almost impossible to find in the wild. Adding it to the center’s patchwork of native gardens is their small contribution to the survival of this rare species. Solemnly, they douse the little plant with water from their Dasani bottles.

Sroat is one of the guides and owners of Hina Adventure Tours, and this stop is the last on a tour called Ancient Waikiki and Sacred Valley Exploration. Like all the tours offered by the young eco-tourism company, this one is built out of the intricate stories, legends and natural history associated with a very particular place the royal sites of Waikiki and the inshore valleys that supported them.

“We want to show visitors why Waikiki was so beloved by the Hawaiians,” Sroat says.

The tour includes a short hike down Kalakaua Avenue, a stop at Tantalus Lookout for spectacular views and an exclusive tour of the Manoa Cultural Center. But for clients, it’s the quiet planting ceremony at the Nature Center that sets this tour apart. This simple act tourists giving back to the community they visit makes the tour a part of the growing field of voluntourism.

Sroat and her partner, Uluwehi Hopkins, have based their voluntourism program on their unusually close relationships with several of Oahu’s cultural and environmental organizations.

“That’s really why we started this company,” says Hopkins. “To help these kinds of groups succeed.”

For clients, the charms of voluntourism are obvious: They get the satisfaction of doing good work and the opportunity to interact with locals. But Sroat is quick to point out that community groups are also excited about the tours.

“They’re very open to tourism done with respect,” she says.

Hina Adventure Tours works with organizations like Hui Malama o Lokahi, a group that cares for sacred sites on Oahu’s windward side; Pae Pae o Heeia, the caretaker organization for an historic fishpond; Kaala Farms, a cultural education center for Hawaiian youth; and the Nature Center, which manages natural sites on three islands.

Hina Adventure Tours offers several different levels of voluntourism. The least demanding is the brief visit to the Nature Center, perfect for clients who just want to know their visit has had a positive impact. It’s also the easiest to schedule, since it runs more or less like a regular tour. Their most popular voluntourism offering is the Hoolaulima Community Service Project and Sacred Sites Tour, when clients work side by side with members of Hui Malama o Lokahi. Afterward, they have a potluck lunch with the work group before heading down to the beach for a swim.

With enough advance notice, Hina Adventure Tours can arrange work trips with any of their community partners. Each has its own charm. The Hawaii Nature Center, for example, manages a couple of wetlands on Oahu.

“That’s good for bird-lovers,” says Hopkins.

At Pae Pae o Heeia, clients join local volunteers in rebuilding the lava stone walls and removing invasive plants in a 1,000-year old fishpond. As an option, the staff will take visitors out into the pond on a small boat to fish for moi (threadfin), then cook it up for lunch.

For corporations and community service groups, Hina Adventure Tours can arrange more traditional voluntourism opportunities. These programs often a week or longer blend real community service with a series of tours and cultural activities. This kind of voluntourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry, and the women of Hina Adventure Tours see it as the future.

“That’s the direction we want to grow,” says Sroat. “I believe there are a lot of people out there who want to reach out that way.”

For Hopkins, the commitment of this new kind of tourist is inspiring.

“They have no investment in this place,” she says, “and yet they work so hard.”

Obviously, local communities benefit from all the dedication. But the payoff voluntourism offers clients is equally clear.

As Sroat points out: “They can actually touch Hawaii as it was in ancient times.”

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Preserving Culture

The old Hawaiian lady smiled wistfully as Mr. Young tonged her order of wet li hing mango out of a massive jar. When he put them on the scale, the scarlet slices glistened in the afternoon light.

“Every time I come here,” the lady said in a strong pidgin accent, “it’s like I goin’ back to old-time Hawaii.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by customers a thousand times a day in the old store. But, if a visit to this Oahu institution, known simply as the Crack Seed Store, is a dose of nostalgia for locals, for visitors it’s a charming glimpse into the real Hawaii.

Crack seed, fruit preserved in a concoction of sugar, salt, licorice, star anise and li hing, a tart red powder made from the pits of plums, was brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants more than 100 years ago. Ancient Chinese warriors are said to have carried crack seed under the saddle of their horses. But despite its immigrant past, the crack seed store is thoroughly Hawaiian.

Pre-packaged crack seed can be found in almost any supermarket on Oahu, but if clients are eager for an authentic crack seed experience, encourage them to visit Mr. Young’s pleasantly grubby shop in the old neighborhood of Kaimuki. Inside, hundreds of great apothecary jars line the shelves, each filled with a different variety of crack seed: rock salt plum, candied ginger, li hing mango, sweet sour lemon. The atmosphere is like an old-fashioned candy store, a place where grandparents and children both feel at home.
When your clients are ready to order, Mr. Young shuffles out from behind his battered counter and scoops the sticky morsels into little plastic bags. The sheer number of options can be daunting, and even old hands often walk out with four or five varieties.

A more modern version of the crack seed store can be found among the luxury outlets at Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center. The Crack Seed Center is a bright, clean shop with an enormous selection of traditional fruits, crackers and dried seafood. Its central location makes it tremendously popular with locals, and a squadron of young women in red smocks are quick to offer their help.

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Making Waves

Up Tantalus Drive


Story by Dennis Hollier
Photos by Charles E. Freeman

High up Tantalus Drive, on a ridge overlooking the Honolulu skyline, Don Mussell practices the occult art of radio. As the broadcast engineer for Hawai‘i Public Radio, Mussell installs and maintains all its equipment. Today he’s come up the mountain to check on HPR’s new powerhouse: the KIPO FM 89.3 translator. This station—a radio tower bristling with antennas and a small cinderblock building to house the electronics that go with them—is essentially a powerful booster capturing the KIPO signal from HPR’s Honolulu studio and relaying that signal throughout O‘ahu and far out over the Pacific to translators on Maui and the Big Island.

Hawai‘i, with its mountain ranges and its vast distances between islands, is an inhospitable place for radio. The Tantalus translator, designed and built by Mussell, is the linchpin in HPR’s ambitious scheme to extend its two broadcast streams—KHPR for classical music and KIPO for jazz and public affairs—to every part of the state. In almost every other market of similar size, public radio has forsaken one of these streams; HPR clings to both religiously. And if this is its creed, Don Mussell is its high priest.

Radio, Mussell says, is mysterious. From his point of view, the atmosphere is a pulsing matrix of radio waves both invisible and substantial, vibrating at various frequencies and wavelengths. “Microwaves are about this long,” Mussell says, holding his hands a few inches apart, “but FM is about ten feet, TV is about forty-five feet and AM can be miles long.” He pauses for a moment while I envision all these radio signals vibrating over the ridges and valleys of the Ko‘olau. This tissue of energy is no abstraction for Mussell, and understanding its ebb and flow is the key to figuring out how and where to build facilities like the Tantalus translator.

“That’s the way this magical stuff works,” Mussell says. “The layers of complexity are pretty astounding.”

But if the physics of radio is arcane, its bureaucracy is even more inscrutable. Here, too, HRP depends on Mussell. General manager Michael Titterton explains that for many years the FCC imposed a freeze on new public radio licenses. About six years ago this became a serious, potentially insurmountable impediment to HPR’s ambition to bring public radio to the entire state. “Then, just at the right moment, Don Mussell showed up,” Titterton says. Besides being a technical wiz, Mussell, as it turns out, is also a master navigator of the Byzantine world of FCC regulation. “Don has almost a Renaissance approach to radio,” Titterton says, “in part because he’s good engineer, in part because he’s a good strategist and in part because he has the patience to go through all the FCC hoops.”

At first glance the taciturn Mussell doesn’t seem like a “get it done” kind of guy, let alone the type you’d find shinnying up radio towers in a stiff breeze in the dead of night. He’s a slight man with a delicate build and wry, twinkly eyes. At the station he shuffles around in old, worn slippers, khakis rolled up to his ankles and a faded flannel shirt. He’s contemplative, and like most engineers, his conversation is laconic and laced with jargon. When he speaks he has an ironic, vaguely elfin expression and the kind of composure that makes him seem more like a college professor than a man of action. Even so, if you’re one of HPR’s many devoted fans, you owe a debt of gratitude to Mussell. If you’ve ever tuned in for Morning Edition on your commute from Hale‘iwa, listened to All Things Considered over lunch in Lahaina or sipped a beer in Kealakekua to the syncopated rhythms of Jazz with Don Gordon, it’s largely because of Mussell’s technical skills.

Mussell came to Hawai‘i in 1997 after nearly thirty years as a broadcast engineer on the Mainland to build KKCR, Kaua‘i’s public access station. While he was working on KKCR, he took other assignments on the Mainland. “I was going back and forth, back and forth,” Mussell says. “Then, one day I was sitting there in the KKCR station when Michael Titterton came in. ‘Who are you?’ he said. And I said, ‘I guess I’m the engineer.’ Well, there’s a real shortage of engineers here, so he said, ‘Do you have a card?’” It wasn’t long afterward that Mussell found himself in the vanguard of HPR’s expansion.

That expansion, of course, has depended on the contributions of a lot of people—not least on the vision and commitment of executives like Titterton. But at heart the changes have been technological. As an engineer, Mussell is a jack-of-all-trades. “I think I’ve built about forty radio stations,” he says. “So I do everything.” A quick tour of the studio gives a sense of his eclecticism. The equipment racks, for example, are crammed with gear. Electronic monitors track the power output, the signal and even the temperature of the mountaintop translators. Tuners receive feeds from National Public Radio, untold hours of Fresh Air and Prairie Home Companion. Other devices allow HPR to stream content on the web and monitor how many people are listening. Still another machine allows HPR to talk to other stations around the world. Mussell is responsible for all this equipment. “I selected and installed the wire, I punched it all up, I installed the electronics, made all the connections,” he says. “I even picked the furniture.”

Still, most of Mussell’s work is in the field. FM radio is line-of-sight; mountains and the curvature of the Earth can block its signal. Consequently, HPR relies upon a network of translator stations—boosters, essentially—to ferry its signals around the state. “There are seven in all,” Mussell says. “Three on O‘ahu; on Maui we have one; and on the Big Island we have three.” Much of Mussell’s time is spent visiting and servicing these translators. One of his most important achievements has been the construction of the new KIPO translator up on Tantalus. This location, peeking over the substantial barricades of the Ko‘olau range, gives HPR direct coverage of most of O‘ahu and offers line-of-sight access to the translator on Maui. “On a clear day,” Mussell says, “you can actually see the top of Haleakala.”

This is part of what makes the Tantalus translator the future of HPR. The translator, completed in 2008, seems like a modest structure: a standard tall radio tower for the antenna and a small, windowless building perched on a tiny ridge-top plot of land carved from a bamboo jungle. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. “This tower is designed to withstand 140-mile-per-hour winds,” Mussell points out. “The foundation goes down thirty feet.” And the electronics inside are no less astonishing: The coaxial cable that connects the actual transmitter to the antenna is made of one-inch copper pipe threaded through four-inch copper pipe, a stout configuration that can handle about sixty kilowatts—enough juice to power a whole neighborhood.

Such power, Mussell says, is another part of the mystery of radio. The Tantalus translator operates at twenty-nine kilowatts. But by using the right antenna, Mussell can focus that power to over four hundred kilowatts—or higher. “We could boost that to a thousand kilowatts if we wanted.” Of course, that much energy might raise public concerns about the health effects of high-power electromagnetic fields. The Pu‘u ‘Öhi‘a Trail, a spur trail of the popular Makiki trail system, passes close by the Tantalus translator. “We have to minimize the energy on the ground for hikers,” he says. “Down on the ground, it’s just a small percentage of the federal limit on public exposure.” Up on the tower, though, it’s more intense—up to 340 percent.

All this makes the Tantalus translator HPR’s most sophisticated facility, and it’s the reason even residents of distant Hilo can now tune in to KIPO after suffering decades of public radio silence. While Mussell’s pleased to play a critical if behind-the-scenes role in the thriving world of Hawai‘i community radio, it’s really the magic that’s kept him interested. He’s fond of paraphrasing Einstein: “Wire telegraphy is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York, and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Radio operates exactly the same way: You send the signals here, they receive them there. The only difference,” Mussell says, “is that there is no cat.”

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Hybrid Beauty

An anthurium called "Moana Loa"

story by Dennis Hollier
photo by Linda Ching

“Nasty plant.”

That’s what my mother used to call the anthurium. With its long, jutting spadix, the nickname is probably inevitable. And it’s likely that this jaunty, priapic charm — along with brilliant colors, gorgeous, heart-shaped leaves and exceptional vase life — makes the anthurium the king of Hawai‘i’s cut-flower trade, bringing $5 million to 6 million into the state annually. With that much money at stake, there’s incentive to develop new varieties.

This year, for example, a Hawai‘i anthurium called Mauna Loa earned a red ribbon from the Society of American Florists. An obake—a variety of anthurium with white, green-edged spathes — Mauna Loa is one of several award-winning flowers submitted by Green Point Nurseries, a prominent Big Island grower.

Although most of Hawai‘i’s commercial growers, like Green Point, are on the Big Island, the center of the anthurium world is on O‘ahu, at the Magoon Greenhouse complex of UH Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture. Teresita Amore (could an anthurium grower have a better last name?) manages the anthurium program. Strolling through the rows of flowers, she pauses at a table of striking plants—promising crosses between various different anthuriums. “These are potential new varieties,” she says. They’ve been selected for qualities like color, size, yield and vase life. The Mauna Loa turns out to be exceptional in this respect, looking fresh as the day it was cut for forty to sixty days. It’ll also yield six flowers a year—high for an obake—and it’s disease resistant. “We also look at general aesthetics,” Amore says. After all, an award-winning flower should be, above anything else, beautiful.

The work of creating a new flower doesn’t end here. Promising new varieties are cloned and shipped to growers on the Big Island for testing. Growers play a critical role in the process. They and their customers ultimately decide whether a new variety is a winner. That takes a long time—sometimes more than ten years, Amore says.

But it’s time well spent. Since 2004, six UH-created anthurium varieties have earned ribbons. The university has even patented a couple of varieties, including the popular scarlet beauty, Tropic Fire. All this has made Hawai‘i an important player in the anthurium world, challenging the traditional hot spots, Holland and Mauritius. Indeed, the sassy plants born in the Magoon greenhouse are now found in flower arrangements across North America and Japan.

Maybe they’re not so nasty after all.

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Mystery of the Avocado

Ken Love, Avocado Man

story by Dennis Hollier
photo by Jack Wolford

Down at the farmers market at Kapi‘olani Community College, Ken Love and I watch people file through his avocado-tasting booth. Under the canopy, there’s a cornucopia of avocados. Love has lugged in more than 300 pounds of them from the Big Island. The avocado mavens quietly sample each of five varieties heaped in bite-size chunks on paper plates. One by one they solemnly taste each selection, savoring them like oenophiles. They take their duty seriously—nothing focuses one’s attention like a free sample—and some have to make two or more passes through the line before they reach any conclusions. While we watch, I hold forth on the intricacies of building the perfect sandwich—a life’s work.
“The world’s best sandwich,” I say, “is a double-decker contrivance of avocado and bacon on wheat toast.” Love sucks thoughtfully on his unlit pipe, watching as a volunteer deftly flays avocados with an old butcher knife and refills the sample plates. “But there are three provisos,” I continue. “The bread must be lightly buttered; the bacon must be crisp and smoky; and, most importantly, the avocado must be rich and nutty and spooned on in thick, ripe slabs.”

I’m preaching to a choir, of course. Love nimbly palms his pipe and chimes in with the chorus. “Yes, but those supermarket Calavos—they’re pretty much tasteless,” he says, referring to the ubiquitous California-grown varieties typically on offer at supermarkets.

The irony, of course, is that Hawai‘i is the world capital of gourmet avocados. Love, the vice-president of the Hawai‘i Tropical Fruit Growers Association and an officer with the Hawai‘i AgriTourism Association, knows this better than anyone. For more than twenty years, he tended his own diversified Kona farm, 13 acres of coffee and tropical fruit trees—including a grove of avocados. Gradually he became disaffected with coffee (“I was suckered into the coffee thing by a real estate agent,” he says) and began concentrating on the tropical fruits. Three years ago he sold his farm to devote himself fulltime to projects like this—promoting Hawai‘i produce and persuading Big Island farmers to experiment with new, more profitable crops. Hawai‘i’s neglected avocado has become his particular bugbear. He’s written papers on the industry. He’s canvassed and counseled the growers. He’s scolded and pleaded with and nagged the wholesalers and grocers. Now, as the self-appointed spokesman for the Hawai‘i avocado, he stuffs his pipe into his pocket and begins a well-rehearsed lecture.

“Over 200 varieties of avocado trees grow in Hawai‘i,” he says, the result of three centuries of traders who ate avocados on their westbound passage from Mexico and Central America, saving the seeds of the ones they liked. Those seedlings flourished here, and local farmers—many of them Japanese coffee planters—grafted and cultivated the best varieties. Even today many of the local avocados carry the Japanese names of Kona coffee growers: Nishikawa, Yamagata, Ohata. “We have all three races of avocados here,” Love says. “We have West Indians, like the Malama, with smooth skin and large fruit; we have Guatemalans with hard, pebbly skin, like the Hawaiian Hass; and we have small, thin-skinned Mexicans, like the Linda.” With that diversity come advantages. We have varieties that grow at different altitudes and microclimates and trees that fruit at different times of the year; so, in theory, Hawai‘i growers can produce avocados year-round.

It isn’t just that Hawai‘i has more varieties of avocado; Hawai‘i has better-tasting avocados. The buttery, nutty flavor that makes the avocado uniquely savory among fruits comes from its concentration of vegetable fats. And the Hawai‘i avocado is the king of fats. “The California Hass,” Love points out, “has a fat content of about 8 percent; the fat content of the Kahalu‘u, on the other hand, can reach 25 percent. It’s like eating butter.”

That’s my cue to slip in under the awning to sample the goods. This isn’t Love’s first taste test. Just a couple of days earlier, he served up a similar mix of avocados to many of Hawai‘i’s culinary bigwigs—a cohort that included tony chefs like Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong. According to Love, they not only ate raw avocados but tried them in innovative recipes. “Alan Wong was really partial to the Kahalu‘u,” Love says, “and the Malama, which he made into a soup.”

Those of us in the tasting line aren’t so genteel. The elderly lady ahead of me in line disposes of five big bites—nearly a whole avocado—before moving on. The young woman behind me takes advantage of a distracted volunteer to palm a cannonball-size fruit and drop it in her canvas tote. And at the end of the line, an aggrieved customer wants to know why he can’t buy a handful of sample No. 1. “They’re not for sale,” the volunteer tells him, “but if you’ll take a moment to fill out this questionnaire, you can have your pick for free.”

Love presides over the operation with a kind of rumpled aplomb. He hasn’t always been a farmer (he spent thirty years traveling the globe as a photographer for Associated Press), but he certainly looks the part. Beneath his floppy hat, he’s red-faced and jowly and sports a Brillo-like mustache. He wears old, scuffed boots and faded jeans that hang loose beneath a modest paunch. Nevertheless, the overall impression is of a thinking man. Leaving the details of the booth to the volunteers, he stands out in the sun, answering questions about avocados and making pronouncements on the proper role of agriculture in society. With his eclectic interests and contemplative cast, he reminds me of Jefferson’s farmer-philosopher.

For my part, I take a scientific approach to the taste test. Systematically, I take at least three bites of each variety—one for consistency, one for flavor and the rest to accommodate my basic greed. By the end—three passes through the line, in my case—I reach the inescapable conclusion: All five varieties are outstanding. Three of them—the Malama, the Kahalu‘u and the Linda—are the three best avocados I’ve ever eaten. Each different, each flawless. I begin to understand the extent of Love’s frustration that Hawai‘i’s superior avocados are unsung, unknown and, unless you have a tree nearby, mostly unavailable.

Of course, marketing 300 kinds of avocadoes is impossible. There’s just too much variety. Even Love has a hard time keeping them straight. There are big, nutty Murashiges and Yamagatas, which are great for salads. The fruity Yamanes and Beshores are suited to dips and guacamole. The issue is further clouded by hundreds of wild avocadoes—the unnamed varieties and accidental hybrids found in people’s backyards and escaped into the forest. Typically these are inferior fruit; the great ones are quickly shared among friends and farmers. Thus, the vaunted diversity of Hawai‘i’s avocados actually works against them in the marketplace. “People don’t know what they’re buying,” Love says.

Although you’ll occasionally find a few local varieties at a farmers market, you’re unlikely to find them at the supermarket. Even grocery stores with local roots, like Times and Foodland, rarely offer Hawai‘i varieties; at the national chains like Safeway and especially the big-box stores like Wal Mart and Costco, the avocado bins are full of imported fruit. “Last year,” says Love, citing a 2007 study he helped to organize, “Hawai‘i farmers produced over 800,000 pounds of avocados, but nearly half of that went to waste.” It’s not for lack of avocado consumers, he points out. While more than 350,000 pounds of prime avocados rotted on the tree here, Hawai‘i’s supermarkets and wholesalers imported 1.5 million pounds of avocados from California and Mexico.

“Currently, grocery stores only pay 60 to 80 cents a pound for local avocados, but they pay $2.30 for the California Hass,” Love says. Sometimes the local varieties retail for less than the wholesale price of the California avocados. Thus the wastage: For many farmers it’s not worth the effort to harvest local avos. Besides, few are actually avocado farmers; they’re coffee or macadamia nut or tropical fruit farmers who happen to have a few avocado trees.

This is all madness, of course, spending top dollar for an imported, inferior fruit when you have a veritable orchard in your own backyard, but Love has his work cut out for him if he wants to make sense out of Hawai‘i’s avocado market. Despite their superiority, there’s a built-in prejudice against local avocados; grocery stores want the consistency and predictability—both in look and supply—of the California avocado. Never mind the quality.

Export isn’t an option either. “This year is a centennial of a sort,” Love says. “Back in 1908, the California growers got the Hawai‘i avocado banned. For the fruit flies, they said.” There are treatments for the fruit flies, but they’re not economical for Hawai‘i’s small-time producers. Now and then there’s a quiet movement to lift the ban—at least for the cold, northern tier states during the winter, when fruit flies pose no threat to agriculture. Love isn’t hopeful, though; the big California producers will never let it happen. Instead, he focuses on persuading local markets to change their buying habits.

Taste tests at tiny farmers markets are well and good—they educate consumers, and they’re useful to growers who want to know which varieties people prefer—but Love knows they’re just a first step. The problems facing the Hawai‘i avocado are systemic, and solving them will require better collaboration among Hawai‘i growers—perhaps branding Hawai‘i avocados much like Kona coffee has been. But to Love, the issue is just a symptom of a much larger problem, one that has to do with us, the consumers. “We have 168 million pounds of competitive vegetables coming into Hawai‘i each year,” he says. “Things we already grow here.” If we want to support Hawai‘i agriculture—and those incomparable avocados—then, as Love puts it, “We have to consume local.”

Of course, Love too is sometimes preaching to the choir. Just as the farmers market is winding down, an elderly couple makes their way deliberately through the samples. They linger over the Linda, savoring its creamy texture and indescribable richness. Like an old memory, a smile passes between them, and wordlessly they link hands. As they stroll away, Love and I can just make out the faded logo on the back of the old man’s shirt. It reads, “Support Local Agriculture.”

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Bee Beautiful

story by Dennis Hollier

photo by Gerlinde Gorla

 

When Anthony and Gwen Maxfieldmoved into their Pupukea home eighteen years ago, there were already bees on the property and it seemed perfectly natural for Anthony to step into the role of beekeeper. Thus began an apiary relationship that culminated last year when the Maxfields and their friend, Christina Sirlin, formed a new company: Honey Girl Organics.

It was eight years ago that Gwen first noticed an unexpected advantage to working with bees. “I had cut the cappings off the combs to harvest the honey,” says Anthony, “and I was wringing them out to get as much honey as possible.” Afterward, Gwen remarked on how soft his hands felt, and asked him to make her a cream for the same effect.

Today Honey Girl offers a full line of moisturizers and lotions, with most of the ingredients coming from the twenty hives behind Gwen’s and Anthony’s house. Beeswax is a natural moisturizer and emollient. Honey soothes and softens the skin. Bee pollen is rich in nutrients. Propolis, a waxy product that bees make from the sap of evergreens like ironwood and ‘ohia, is a natural antiseptic. And royal jelly, the enzyme-rich food of the queen bee, is thought to have age-reversing qualities.

For the Maxfields, the “naturalness” of their ingredients is the whole point. “Pick up a jar of skin cream at the drugstore,” Anthony says. “It’s packed with glycerin, mineral oils and other processed chemicals.” Everything in Honey Girl products is edible, he stresses, and, “it’s as close to nature as you can get.”

“Anything you put onto your skin gets absorbed into your bloodstream,” says Christina. “This is how birth control and Nicorette patches work.” And it’s why Honey Girl only uses nutritious, organic ingredients.

But Honey Girl is more than a business—it’s also a love story. “This was an opportunity to spend more time with my wife, to do something together,” says Anthony. “She liked my soft hands.” At which Gwen smiles sweetly and adds, “I think the best part of the story is that he made it for me.”

Honey Girl Organics
www.hgh-skincare.com

 

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Toxic Waste in Paradise

     Photo: iStock

Thirty years after it shut down, the old Gasco site in Iwilei is still a vacant lot. For generations, it converted heavy petroleum into synthetic gas and light oils. Now, its storage tanks, thermal cracker unit and pipelines are long gone and, in their place, is a field of gravel and weeds.

All that remains of the old gasworks is its contamination – a vast underground reservoir of viscous tar and toxic aromatics, like benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene. Indeed, the Gasco site is one of the most contaminated sites in the state, and the technical and legal consequences of that contamination are why the land sat vacant for more than three decades. Even so, three years ago, Weston Solutions, an international environmental engineering company, bought the property – and all the liability that goes with it.

That’s because the four-acre site is prime real estate. It’s near downtown, the harbor, airport, highways and the planned rail line. Weston plans to clean it and redevelop it, but three years after buying the land, Weston’s project still faces technical glitches and regulatory hurdles, and has become a symbol of Hawaii’s contaminated lands problem.

     Operations manager Dave Griffin, left, and Mark Ambler are 
     confident that Weston Solutions’ chemical oxidation process 
     can clean up the old GasCo site in Iwilei. The contaminated 
     property is immediately makai of the Home Depot store.
     Photo: David Croxford

Distribution of toxic sites

Here’s the good news: Hawaii is much less affected by contaminated sites than most Mainland states, according to Fenix Grange, manager of Site Discovery, Assessment and Remediation for the state Department of Health. That’s largely because we haven’t had as many heavy industries as in the Rust Belt or the petrochemical regions of the Gulf Coast. Also, according to Grange, it’s rare for contaminated properties here to sit idle.

“In Hawaii, because land is so valuable, most large, urban properties that have contamination on them get developed anyway,” she says. “People just make the cleanup and control costs part of their redevelopment plans,” Grange says.

Nevertheless, industrial areas like Iwilei, Campbell Industrial Park, Mapunapuna and Kakaako are heavily contaminated, which complicates land sales and development. The main issue, of course, is liability for the required cleanup, which can mean millions of dollars in uncertain expenses.

Beyond these large, well-known industrial sites, there are hundreds of anonymous, smaller sites: dumps, auto-repair shops and old underground tanks at gas stations. Former sugar and pineapple plantations have dozens of contaminated sites that were once used for fertilizer storage or pesticide mixing.

The state Department of Health has investigated more than 1,700 sites of potential contamination, nearly half of which merited further action. “We have about 800 sites in our database that have current or historic contamination that are either still dirty, or were dirty and have been cleaned up,” Grange says.

Joint and several liability

Hawaii’s rules on toxic sites are mostly derived from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations. “In federal law,” Grange says, “liability is ‘joint and several,’ which means anybody associated with the contamination is in the chain of responsibility. The regulators look first to the party that actually caused the contamination. Then they look to the current property owner. But anyone associated with the contamination is in the chain of responsibility.” That means, the current property owner is on the hook, but so is the previous owner.

An excellent example is Weston’s other Oahu project, the old Chem-Wood facility in Campbell Industrial Park. From 1973 to 1988, Chem-Wood, a Campbell Estate tenant, used copper chromate arsenic to pressure-treat lumber there. Campbell sold the property to Chem-Wood in 1989, but, under duress from the EPA to clean up the site, Chem-Wood went bankrupt in 1997, leaving behind tanks of the toxic chemical. In 2008, vandals broke in, spilling 300 pounds of the copper chromate arsenic. Arsenic levels in the soil are now some of the highest in the state.

In the intervening years, other responsible parties have disappeared. The most recent owner, a Japanese businessman who also faced pressure to clean up, walked away from the property, taking haven from the EPA in Japan. His predecessors went bankrupt. But bankruptcy is not an option for the Campbell Estate; its pockets are too deep. Until it sold the site to Weston Solutions, it was stuck with all the liability for the cleanup, even though it hadn’t been the owner of the property for more than 20 years. That’s the principle of “joint and several.”

The uncertainty and risk created by joint and several liability has made it difficult to redevelop parcels that are contaminated – or are even suspected of contamination. As a result, the EPA and state regulators have devised programs intended to ease liability for buyers that want to redevelop a contaminated property. The state’s Voluntary Response Program, for example, provides owners and purchasers with technical assistance, quicker oversight and some relief from future liability.

“With the VRP,” Grange says, “a developer comes in, agrees to characterize a site and take responsibility for the contamination up to a level suitable for their proposed use, and then they’re free from additional liability.” She adds that the liability for the remaining contamination doesn’t simply go away. “That liability stays with whoever caused the contamination in the first place.”

She gives an example from Iwilei: “The site of the Lowe’s store has a bunch of petroleum-contaminated soil from the old ConocoPhillips tank farm. Lowe’s wanted to build its store there, but it didn’t want to assume all of ConocoPhillips’ responsibility. So it entered our VRP and agreed to remediate within the property boundaries to a level that was safe and appropriate to build a commercial store. The VRP leaves the remaining environmental responsibility with ConocoPhillips.”

Probably the most important program for encouraging the redevelopment of contaminated lands has been the federal Brownfields Program. This law, which was mirrored at the state level in 2009, provides many of the same protections as the VRP. “We have about 20 VRP sites in the state,” Grange says. “But with the new Brownfield purchaser law, I think there will be less need for those in the future, because they can get those protections automatically now.”

One of the big differences with the Brownfield Program is its funding options. “Right now, we have what’s being presented as the poster child for Brownfield,” says Mike Yee, one of the principals at the local consulting firm EnviroServices and Training Center. “That’s our East Kapolei site, the pesticide-mixing site and surrounding area in Ewa that the Department of Hawaiian Homelands wants to put homes on.” Through the Brownfield Program, DHHL is funding some of its environmental assessment costs with a $200,000 EPA grant. DHHL is also the first entity to use a $1 million EPA revolving fund administered by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. This money can be used for the actual cleanup and paid back after the property has been redeveloped.

“Wow,” says Yee. “What a wonderful way to use federal money: to bring that money into our state to investigate and clean up contaminated sites. It’s good for the developer, good for the state and, ultimately, good for the community – not to mention the environment.”

Weston has created an interesting business model for its Gasco and Chem-Wood projects. Typically, environmental firms are simply consultants or subcontractors; the developer remains liable for the contamination. But Weston bought these properties outright. In effect, Weston has gambled on its expertise in environmental engineering, believing it can purchase properties at a discount, clean them and sell them at a premium. In the interim, though, Weston is the responsible party as far as DOH is concerned. In the lingo of environmental engineers, Weston has bought the liability.

“I’d like to tell you that we’re really smart at this,” says Dave Griffin, Hawaii Operations Manager, “but we have a card up our sleeve: We buy an insurance policy. We engage insurance to underwrite this risk for us, so if we encounter 50 drums of methyl-ethyl that nobody knew about, we can recover some of our expenditures.”

While being the property owner is much riskier, Griffin points out some advantages. To begin with, any upside on the development end of the deal belongs to Weston. And since the company’s cleanup agreement with DOH is based upon the end use for the property, Weston can tailor its cleanup process to a specific function, potentially saving money.

There’s also the method of payment. Although Weston technically “bought” the property from BHP, the details of the contract are more complicated: The seller pays most of the downstream costs. “Instead of billing for hours,” Griffin says, “we get paid up front. So now we’re sitting on that money, drawing interest. Financially, that makes a lot of sense.”

Rick Smith elaborates: “You get paid for everything up front,” he says. “So they (property sellers) pay for the insurance. We don’t pay for that. … The cost of the cleanup, what we actually do in the field, all that’s paid up front. All that’s part of the calculation.” But he notes there’s a lot of prelude before the symphony of cash. “That reward, that big lump of money, doesn’t just stroll in the front door. There’s a lot of work that goes into putting one of these deals together.” In this case, the deal took 18 months to arrange.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” says Griffin. “The truth is, we’re trying to do the right thing here. By redeveloping this property, we get jobs, we get tax base and we get a more vibrant community out of the deal. That’s our kind of model. Would we like to make some money at the end of the deal? Absolutely. We found a piece of property that’s been sitting vacant for 30 years (the old Gasco site), and it’s right next to the highest-selling Costco in the country. We think we’ve found a little gem here. But, in the end, it’s Weston’s contamination now.”

 

Bankers and Consultants

Although a large, international company like Weston Solutions can afford to self-finance its projects, most local companies interested in redeveloping contaminated property will need a lender. And that’s just the beginning, says Scott Rodie, environmental risk manager at Bank of Hawaii.

“Banks don’t like uncertainty,” says Rodie. “What we try to do, cooperatively with the client, is help them avail themselves of the experts that are out there.”

That means making sure their clients have qualified environmental consultants and appropriate insurance, and that, overall, they know what they’re getting into.

One problem is figuring out if your advisors are knowledgable. “It’s unregulated and unlicensed,” Rodie says. “Under federal law and Hawaii Revised Statutes, there are requirements that you have an ‘environmental professional,’ as defined by the rule, perform a Phase-1 (site investigation). But, again, it’s unlicensed. You have nearly nothing to go after” if they get it wrong.

“So it’s buyer beware,” Rodie says. Or, better yet, listen to your banker.

 

 How Toxic Land is Cleaned

Environmental engineering companies have several ways of cleaning contaminated land, from the most basic method to high-tech solutions.

First, figuring out if there is anything toxic in the ground, what it is and where, can be complicated. Mike Yee, of EnviroServices, elaborates: “How far down does the contamination go? How wide has it spread? What are the actual contaminants and what is the level of the contamination? Then we look at remediation alternatives – what’s the best way to treat it? Normally, there’s not just one way to clean up a site, and there are a lot of factors that go into determining which one you select.”

One option is very basic: dig up the contaminated soil and remove it. Damon Hamura, project manager for EnviroServices, calls it “Bag it and tag it.” With this method, you’re not actually getting rid of the contaminant; you’re just moving it – often to a landfill.

That’s sometimes the only solution, particularly with metals contamination, but it presents its own problems, including moving truckloads of contaminated soil through the neighborhood.

“Sometimes,” Hamura says, “they just put it back on the same site – a kind of reinterment. They dig a pit, put all the contaminated soil in there, then cover it with concrete or asphalt. That’s called ‘encapsulation.’ ”

This is the strategy being used at the Chem-Wood site in Campbell Industrial Park.

When it comes to cleanup options, Hamura says, “Removal is a pretty short list, but when you get to remedial action, it’s a relatively long list. And it’s getting longer as technology grows.” This is particularly true for petroleum-based contaminants, the prevalent form of soil and groundwater pollution in Hawaii. For example, you have various kinds of bioremediation – basically using petroleum-eating microbes, either natural or introduced – to remove the contaminant. This is often combined with sparging, essentially bubbling oxygen through the groundwater to improve the effectiveness of the bacteria.

A more radical approach is thermal desorption. “Basically,” Hamura says, “you’re heating up the soil, trying to burn off the contaminants. But you also need to capture the vapor that’s produced. Usually, you use this method for organic contaminants. If you have a metals issue, that’s not going to do much for you.”

Often, remediation is an ongoing responsibility. Many properties, especially those that have passed through the VRP or Brownfield Program, require “administrative controls.” These controls might forbid digging or strictly limit the use of the property.

The remediation can also be engineered into the new development. In areas with petroleum contamination, like the Lowe’s and Costco sites in Iwilei, this probably involves the installation of a vapor barrier and a vapor extraction system.

Weston plans a more aggressive approach with the tar and benzene at the Gasco site. “We’re proposing to use in situ chemical oxidation,” says David Griffin, Weston’s operations manager in Hawaii. “That’s pumping 40,000 gallons of diluted industrial-grade hydrogen peroxide into the ground. That treats the contamination. (The byproducts are carbon dioxide and water.) Plus, it destroys the contaminants in place, so we’re not bringing them to the surface, putting them in trucks and hauling them through the local neighborhoods.” This drives the benzene out of the groundwater to a ventilation system on the surface, where it’s burned off. “Then, we do a monitoring program to make sure we’re meeting the levels we signed up for,” Griffin says.

This system is not without risks. Last September, the flame arrester failed on the thermal oxidizer – basically a big furnace – and the resulting backflash caused an explosion in the PVC ventilation system, which ignited a small fire in a benzene vent. No one was hurt, but the fire department arrived in HazMat gear and took two hours and 200,000 gallons of water to put out the tiny fire. Nevertheless, Weston is confident in its system – early tests suggest it’s already lowered the benzene level 60 percent – and only awaits Department of Health approval to expand from the current test grid to the whole site.

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Hawaii Timeshare Controversy

BY DENNIS HOLLIER

     Photo: Courtesy of the Grand Waikikian at Hilton Hawaiian Village

It seems like a contradiction: The traditional hotel business in Hawaii is shrinking even while the hospitality industry recovers from the recession, more visitors arrive and they pay more per room than last year.

The relative decline of stand-alone hotels is a trend that has persisted for years and will stretch into the future. Over the past decade, hotel rooms have fallen from 70 percent of the state’s lodging inventory to less than 57 percent, according to a report from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Even as Hawaii tourism enjoyed boom times during most of the past 10 years, the overall hotel inventory actually declined by 7,599 rooms.

No stand-alone hotels are being built today while almost every other form of visitor accommodation has grown, including condominium hotels, hostels, vacation rentals and, most importantly, timeshares. As the number of hotel rooms fell over the past decade, timeshare’s share of the overall hospitality inventory doubled.

Hawaii now has 87 timeshare resorts and that number keeps growing in a time when no one is building stand-alone hotels. Almost every major hospitality company in Hawaii is developing new timeshare properties, converting existing hotels into timeshare, or rehabilitating the timeshare they have.

Timeshare also has its detractors. Many owners complain about high maintenance fees, or that the flexibility that seemed so straightforward during the sales pitch doesn’t always work out in reality. Even industry executives acknowledge timeshare’s shady past, when the industry was dominated by high-pressure sales and dubious claims about investment potential, but they say much of that bluster is gone and the industry has grown more sophisticated. This change is partly due to the introduction of more consumer protections and better self-policing, but mainly because the industry today is dominated by big corporations like Hilton, Disney, Hyatt, Starwood, Marriott and Wyndham. These are some of the best-known brands in hospitality and they’ve helped bring timeshare into the mainstream in Hawaii.

Prices in Paradise

Timeshares aren’t cheap, especially in Hawaii. A typical two-bedroom unit in Waikiki can sell for upwards of $80,000 for a prime week (though the same unit might sell for half that in the resale market). This suggests that a well-appointed, two-bedroom apartment in Waikiki is worth about $4 million, clearly an inflated price. And the cost doesn’t end with the purchase price. Timeshare owners must pay maintenance fees, which cover everything from property and excise taxes to routine maintenance and the condominium’s reserve fund.

The maintenance fee for that two-bedroom timeshare in Waikiki will likely set you back upwards of $1,000 annually for each week of ownership. Not surprisingly, these maintenance fees are one of the main objections of potential buyers. Imagine paying condo fees of $52,000 a year.

     Joe Toy, president of the consulting firm Hospitality Advisors, says 
     timeshares represent 13 percent of Hawaii’s total lodging inventory.
     Photo: Rae Huo

Nevertheless, the role of timeshare within the hospitality sector is growing. Joe Toy, president of the consulting firm Hospitality Advisors, reports that there are nearly 10,000 timeshare units in Hawaii, or 13 percent of the total lodging inventory. The allure of timeshare is such that nearly 6,000 Hawaii residents own timeshares in Hawaii.

Timeshare’s influence is even more obvious when you start to look at occupancy rates. “In Hawaii, timeshare properties average about 90 percent occupancy,” Toy says. “And that’s down from prior years.” To put that in perspective, Hawaii hotel occupancy in the bitter year of 2009 was about 66 percent. The reason for the difference, of course, is that timeshare owners have prepaid for their lodging and they want to use it. That means their vacation plans are less likely to be thwarted by economic or political upheavals.

“Even after 9/11,” Toy says, “timeshare occupancy was in the 70 percent range, when the rest of the state was around 30 percent.”

This is one reason so many hotel companies have added timeshare to their quiver: When your hotel guests stop coming, you can still count on the timeshare crowd to help fill your restaurants and shop in your stores.

Other numbers reinforce this picture. Toy’s report shows that the average stay for timeshare visitors is nearly a week. They typically travel in larger groups, and they tend to spend more money in the community, nearly $1,600 per party. In other words, these are some of Hawaii’s most reliable and free-spending visitors. They’re also locked in; the state doesn’t have to spend its marketing dollars to find and persuade them to come.

There are other benefits to the overall state economy from timeshare. One is a marketing strategy that liberally uses incentives and gifts to attract people to timeshare sales presentations. “That’s sort of a fundamental part of our marketing,” says Bryan Klum, executive VP of Hilton Grand Vacations. “In exchange for the customer giving up some of their valuable vacation time, we usually provide some sort of gift.” These gifts might be discounts on accommodations, or credits that can be spent at the resort’s restaurants and shops. More frequently, though, the gifts are virtually cash. “We often just give customers Ala Moana gift cards,” Klum says.

     King’s Land by Hilton
     Photo: Courtesy of King’s Land by Hilton

Hilton is far from unique. “As an incentive, we offer $125 dining coupons that can be used at several different restaurants in Lahaina,” says Robert Welch, general manager of Marriott’s Maui Ocean Club. “It’s a huge part of our marketing.” All these marketing dollars ultimately end up in the pockets of local vendors rather than in those of out-of-state media and advertising outlets. Large properties in Waikiki, which may give sales presentations to 10,000 to 20,000 customers a year, each contribute millions of dollars annually to the incomes of the shops, restaurants and activities in their neighborhoods.

Then, of course, there are jobs. “There’s a lot of economic benefit from our industry,” says Hilton’s Klum. “There’s the tax revenue that’s raised; there’s the passed-along spending of our customers; there’s the marketing money that we spend, both in state and out of state. But where the rubber really meets the road is the number of people we’re able to employ directly.” Hilton alone, he says, employs more than 700 people in its timeshare operations.

Disney estimates the construction of its Aulani project on Oahu created 1,200 new construction and permanent jobs. According to Hospitality Advisors, the timeshare industry directly contributes more than 4,400 jobs to the Hawaii economy, with a total payroll exceeding $226 million a year. It’s worth noting: That’s an average annual income of nearly $51,000.

Developers’ Incentive

The timeshare industry has been one of the few private sources of economic growth in the state over the past two years. For example, Disney’s Aulani project was built in the teeth of Hawaii’s most severe economic turndown in a generation. When you add in other developments, timeshare generated more than $200 million in capital expenditures in the state during 2009 and 2010, according to the Hospitality Advisors report. This year, Toy says, the industry projects an additional $80 million, which means there are currently more than 3,000 new timeshare units in the pipeline. Hotels are another matter entirely.

“Looking back over the last few years,” says Marriott’s Welch, “the only lodging construction in the state has been timeshare. And over the next 10 years, we have a plan to spend about $1 billion on more timeshare development.” That plan includes projects that are currently partially built, like Koolina and Kauai Lagoons, as well as others on the drawing board. Similarly, Hilton is in the entitlement process on two new towers at Hilton Hawaiian Village, and is selling units at the Grand Waikikian.

Dan Dinell, vice president at Hilton Grand Vacations and chair of the Hawaii chapter of ARDA, the industry trade association, puts that in perspective. “I know of no pure hotel project planned anywhere in the state,” he says, “but there are several timeshare projects planned.” He emphasizes that by adding: “There’s nobody who would develop a stand-alone hotel now in Hawaii; it just doesn’t pencil out.” In other words, the future of Hawaii’s hospitality industry is timeshare and mixed-use.

That’s because timeshare is simply a better capital machine, says Mitchell Imanaka, principal of Imanaka Kudo & Fujimoto, and the former chair of the Hawaii chapter of ARDA, the trade association for the timeshare industry. “The business model,” he says, “has to be contrasted with the hotel model, where someone comes in and builds a project, and hopes that by branding it, they’ll have a certain level of revenue and visitors.” In other words, the developer’s capital is buried in the project, and it may take years of uncertain profits to extract it again. “But the timeshare model permits a developer to go to market, sell his interest, and generate capital to either replenish his coffers, or to make a profit on the sale.” No less important, the ability to extract capital early helps mitigate the risk in the project. “It’s a very compelling model,” Imanaka says. “Because the return is likely to be higher for the developer.”

Timeshare Taxes

Despite timeshare’s growing importance in Hawaii’s hospitality industry, it’s still misunderstood. In January, Gov. Neil Abercrombie proposed legislation that would have more than tripled the transient accommodation tax paid by timeshare owners. According to the governor, this was an attempt to bring timeshare’s TAT in line with that paid by hotel guests. “The objective,” he said, “is to have equitable tax treatment to ensure that the people of Hawaii have adequate funds to support the impacts of visitors to the Islands.” In this sense, he believes the timeshare visitor and the hotel guest should be treated the same.

But industry advocates point out that timeshare owners are already treated differently. Toy says timeshare units already pay more taxes than comparable hotel rooms. For example, as a fee simple owner of real property, a timeshare owner pays property tax. When a timeshare unit is rented out as a hotel room, GET is charged. These visitors are also charged exactly the same TAT as hotel guests. Moreover, timeshare owners do pay a transient accommodations tax, albeit somewhat lower, when they use their own units.

It’s this last tax that industry insiders find most galling. To the governor, it’s simply a matter of equity. “In terms of sharing roads, public parks and hiking trails with our own residents,” Abercrombie says, “it doesn’t matter whether a visitor is staying in a timeshare or a hotel room – the impacts on our Islands are the same.” But the industry turns the equity question on its head. Marriott’s Welch puts it this way: “I believe Hawaii is the only state where a TAT is applied to people sleeping in their own beds,” he says.

Timeshare advocate Imanaka says another problem is what an increased TAT would say to outside developers. “The increase itself would have sent a very negative message to the timeshare industry, to the timeshare owners who visit Hawaii, and to the investment community who invests capital here,” he says. “We’re a capital-poor state, meaning we need to import money in order to keep things running here. The last thing we want to do is send a negative message to the investment community saying, ‘Your dollars aren’t welcome here.’ And that’s my fear: that this will have a chilling effect on investment here in Hawaii.”

Instead of hiking taxes on timeshares, Imanaka says, the state should be nurturing the industry. “If we did, we would not have budget shortfalls as dramatic as we’re experiencing today. We would not have Furlough Fridays; we would not have to look at closing social services, having to tax retirees’ pension benefits, having to tax away Medicaid reimbursements, and the list goes on. Timeshare is the answer; it’s certainly not the problem. And what we have to do is embrace it, make sure the industry continues to thrive. Because we all benefit from that.” 

 

 

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