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Monday, March 1, 2010

on the heartbreaking value of a dollar


In April of 2010, Makena Resort will be put up for auction to pay off the $194 million debt owned to lenders. This price is a significant reduction from the $595 million it was sold for in 2005 and the “bargain basement” appeal of a $200M price tag has caused something of a sensation in the Maui community.
With the auction date swiftly approaching, I have noticed that my mind wanders to the fate of Makena Resort with increasing frequency and preoccupation. I am a Maui local, born and raised, and like a majority of my peers, Maui’s natural environment defines my reality. It bears the legacy of my past and the promise of my future. It is my home, and it is sacred.
Although I did not grow up in Makena, the sacredness of this area is less the exception than it is the rule. Query anybody you meet down at First, Second, or Third entrance, and I bet you will be hard pressed to find a single person who believes that Big Beach is not culturally, ecologically, spiritually, emotionally, or philosophically significant.
But in a little over a month, whichever person or faceless business interest can produce the greatest stack of bills will be named new owner of Makena Resort. This worries me.
Putting the Resort up for auction could play out in a number of disturbing ways. By definition, an auction will determine Makena Resort’s new owner using capital as the singular selection criterion, with zero consideration as to whether said owner is capable of responsible land use and management. What will the new owner do with the Resort? What will the impact to the area be and how will these decisions affect our island community?
One musing leads to another, and I begin to daydream about what I would do with the Resort if it were mine. Of course, my daydreams are purely fantastical – how could I possibly convince some bigwig investor that my vision for Makena Resort is so exceptional that it is worth hundreds of millions of his or her dollars? Despite its impossibility, I concentrate on the realistic details of my dream, and I begin the thought exercise of imagining how I would generate the necessary capital. I’d need partners, and the first person I would approach is Dale Bonar.
Dale Bonar, for those of you who don’t know, is the Executive Director of the Maui Coastal Land Trust (MCLT). As land trusts go and considering that such organizations exist to protect land into perpetuity, MCLT is still in its infancy. But don’t let its youth fool you. In its short ten years of existence, MCLT has realized herculean success in protecting open spaces by purchasing land titles and negotiating conservation easements. MCLT actively engages the community in its conservation efforts through programs and opportunities designed to educate Maui’s residents and youth in cultural and environmental resource conservation.
I cannot imagine a more perfect guardian and steward of Makena Resort than the Maui Coastal Land Trust, which is why the first call I make in this daydream is to Dale. However, as far as I know, MCLT is not qualified, capable, or interested in owning and operating the existing Makena Resort hotel and golf club. And at the risk of exposing myself to the outrage of those who stand staunchly opposed to development, I offer my personal belief that Makena Resort can be pono… it can be something that is right. Therefore, in my conversation with Mr. Bonar, I would propose entering into a 50/50 partnership wherein MCLT assumes stewardship of the Resort property that lies to the South of Pu’u Olai through a conservation easement, and I would assume responsibility of the hotel and acreage north of the area’s landmark cinder cone.
As a community, the residents of Maui have needs that must be met through its economic activity. Historically speaking, this activity has been defined by plantation agriculture; cattle ranching; and since the 1960’s, tourism and real estate development. Sadly, each of these economic forces has proven to be socially inequitable and environmentally unsustainable.
Mono-crop agribusiness has also proven to be economically unsustainable. The emergence of global markets drove a dagger into Hawaii’s agribusiness economy and in recent times, the recession has begun to twist that proverbial knife. I suspect that it won’t be long before HC&S sugarcane operations follows Maui Land & Pine to the grave, and massive portions of this land goes up for sale. I hope that as a community, we will consider the incredible effect this land grab could have on our island and develop a preferred course of action in anticipation of this shift. Because with mindful planning, the demise of the old economic framework bears exciting possibilities, especially with regard to our visitor industry.
I do not support the claim that endless construction is an acceptable means to sustain our economy. Indeed, it is the most direct route to poisoning our visitor industry and destroying our precious environment in the process. But the construction industry is starved for activity and technologies and methods are available for building in a manner that minimally impacts the environment.
To finance the remaining half of the property would require a very unique group of investors. The collapse of the housing market in 2008 crippled real estate development industry, the visitor industry, and indeed, the world as we know it. If Makena Resort were mine, I would be poised to deliver an illuminated solution to the financial powers that be when they finally recognize that their status-quo approach to development is beyond fixing.
Homes would be built according to the Dowling Company design guidelines to be net zero energy facilities and according to the highest green building standard.  A portion of these homes would be developed on three-acre estate lots and marketed and sold as timeshares. The Resort’s ultra-lux "timeshare estates" and vacation rentals would be modeled after Sunriver Resort, so that instead of selling of the property and handing the keys over to an absentee offshore market, we could instead retain control of the resort and draw a continual revenue stream from operating it.
If it were my Resort, I would design, build, and operate eco-lodges that would redefine the standard for sustainable development. "The Camp" as it would be called, would be a dynamic hybrid establishment made up of equal parts permaculture farm, ranch, and exclusive visitor destination that would function to provide its guests with the ultimate experience in sustainable luxury.
The Camp would feature five eco-lodges situated on twenty-acre parcels in the upper section of the property, separated from each other by a buffer of landscaped kiawe tree cover and converted pastureland. These open spaces would be laced together with a network of wood chip trails that are only accessible by foot or horseback and are mindfully situated to display the property’s significant natural and archeological landmarks.
These lodges would feature a salt-water pool and world-class fitness center and spa, (in the interest of maximizing the wonder of this fantasy, please don’t ask how I intend to “Show You the Water”), a horse stable, riding arena, polo field, and maybe even a skeet shooting range. Several acres of organic permaculture gardens and dryland taro lo’i scattered across the site would supply all of the produce used at the resort's lodge and hotel.
Operating time-share and TVR estates would bring in substantially more visitors (and their pocketbooks) to the island and provide hundreds of jobs. Further, it will help to make Makena an active, living, vibrant community. Wouldn’t it be such a shame if after everything has been developed and sold to third and fourth homebuyers, Makena were just ghost town of beautiful, empty houses?
The experience at these eco-lodges would be targeted to a very specific type of clientele. Visitors would be regarded not as tourists but as students of Hawaiian culture and sustainable living. One of the cornerstone philosophies of these ranches would be to develop innovative ways to live sustainably.  We could spend our days operating our permaculture farm(s) and developing methods to eliminate our waste stream and carbon footprint.  We could host retreats and visitors could come to experience our unique and holistic lifestyle.  Sustainability would be so seamlessly integrated into ranch operations that the visitor can choose whether to make sustainability a focus of their stay.  Tours, workshops, assistance and information will be provided to those who seek to learn more about our methods and what makes us unique.  Others are welcome to simply spend their time at the ranch relaxing and rejuvenating.  To supplement this objective, in-house amenities will include massage, acupuncture, meditation and yoga classes.  

Visitors would be also welcomed to partake in ecological and archeological expeditions through Makena’s living laboratory of rare native species and labyrinths of historic cultural sites. These visitors would be educated about the negative impact of feral ungulate populations on the native ecosystem and could be led on guided expeditions to hunt axis deer, wild goat, and boar. At lodge luaus, visitors would enjoy traditionally prepared Kalua pork made from the wild boar they caught and Makena venison would be preserved as jerky for guests to bring home to their friends and families.

If I owned Makena Resort, the Prince Hotel would undergo mindful renovations to reinvigorate its luxurious appeal and accent its antiquated Japanese charm. Renovations would modernize its energy and water use systems and aesthetic upgrades would strictly adhere to the maintenance and preservation of its historical integrity.

My Makena Resort would have a robust Voluntourism program. By partnering with local environmental and cultural nonprofits, I would provide visitors with an opportunity to experience the meaning of malama ka aina. I would develop an ecosystem restoration project in partnership with the neighboring land trust and would work with people like Art Medeiros and apply the techniques used at Auwahi in makai regions of the leeward Haleakala watershed to bring back the native dry land forest. Cultural expert Kimokeo Kapahulehua would be commissioned with the restoration and ongoing management of the ancient fishpond fronting the property's shoreline. “Uncle Bully”, as he is known, would teach our youth and community about traditional Hawaiian fishing methods. We would partner with the Protect Kahoolawe Organization to allow interested tourists and residents to participate in Kahoolawe’s recovery since being retired as a military test site.

Maui’s mild climate and year-round growth cycle make it the perfect incubator for cultivating a sustainability ethic. Its particularly stunning natural resources serve to catalyze and amplify this phenomenon. As awareness about how to live sustainably spreads within our community, a sense of collective pride and purpose will emerge and unite individuals and diverse groups. Visitors will be drawn to our island to witness and experience our intricate and beautiful dance with the natural world.
Helping visitors on Maui authentically connect with the island's environment and cultural identity is an invaluable service that cannot be quantified in a dollar amount. But my Makena Resort would come with the promise and guarantee that our guests' experience will be worth every zero printed on our thoughtfully designed, hand crafted, 100% local and organic, fantastically robust price tag. More importantly, recreating Maui’s visitor accommodations as family and community-based commercial cooperatives would generate long-term and meaningful employment opportunities that would reward stewardship of our natural environment and enable local residents to capture their fair share of the visitor-industry market.
Makena Resort could serve as a template for integrating sustainability into visitor accommodations across Maui.  I would offer educational workshops and by provide consulting services for other local families interesting in growing their own sustainable visitor accommodations.  Transitioning Maui’s economy away from large-scale resorts and corporate tourism to family-owned and operated organic farms, TVR and B&B retreat centers will generate long-term and meaningful employment opportunities for local residents.

The only main design guidelines for our ohana family farm clusters and our kuleana communities would be that 1) they dedicate one portion of the collectively-owned property (i.e. resort/commons) to producing enough food (hopefully by then the laws will require it to be organic) to supply its own community and visitor population and 2) one area of the commons property is set aside for community restoration efforts (native ecosystem rehabilitation).  Schools could work with these communities to incorporate experiential learning in farming, or cooking, or ecological restoration and maintain an engage the entire community in the education of its youth.  The ranches would supply virtually all the produce and meat for on-site or neighborhood eateries and grocery markets. 

This vision of commercial communalism will strengthen Maui’s nuclear and extended ohanas, neutralize human impact on the environment, reward the island’s residents for their stewardship of Maui and effectively capture its market for visitor dollars.  This new type of the visitor accommodation would strengthen the social fabric of our communities, initiate a cultural renaissance, and advance the cultivation of lifestyles that neutralize human impact on the environment.

This is why if I owned Makena Resort, I’d dedicate my life to perfecting this Un-City Next to a Hill. That is to say, let's commercialize, commodify and market the worm castings out of the Maui Commercial Cooperative economic model. 


-TRE Bien.


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