All of Kauai is aware of the derelict and skeletal remains of the former Coco Palms Resort property in Wailua. For all of us, the view is a constant reminder of the neglect and disrespect these very special lands have endured for the past 27 years.
In the mid-1800s, the area encompassing the Coco Palms Resort was the home of Kauai’s last reigning queen, Queen Deborah Kapule and an areas where high chiefs and chiefesses conducted business and entertained visitors.
Its present condition is more than just a visual blight along an otherwise beautiful drive along the coastline. It is a travesty that disrespects both the present and the past.
As nostalgic as some may feel about the former Coco Palms Resort, Iniki most certainly killed it. Literally for decades now this corpse of a resort has sat there, an eyesore of neglect that dishonors the host culture upon which the buildings are both literally and figuratively constructed.
Our community can no longer tolerate the disrespect and tangible harm to both our economy and our culture that its continued neglect brings upon us. Although the property’s owners and developers, Tyler Greene and Chad Waters, keep saying their project to reconstruct and reopen Coco Palms is on track, it clearly is not, and may never be.
Toward the end of his recent term, former Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. publicly expressed a lack of confidence in the Coco Palms developers who originally came to the county in 2013, promising to restore the dream of what was the former Coco Palms Resort.
Recently, we asked Mayor Derek Kawakami for his perspective. He said:
“Like many residents, my feelings about Coco Palms are torn. On one hand, it represents a significant chapter in the story of Kauai. My grandmother used to work there. Many childhood memories are centered around this special place that I consider Wahi Pana. It is a legendary landmark. However, I believe that every relationship is incumbent on trust and the ability to meet each other halfway.
“I believe the county has been more than generous, and we are still waiting for Coco Palms to reciprocate. The project managers should consider how they are going to make things right. And should this project fail to proceed, the people should have a say. If development is not a near-term reality, we as a community need to start exploring other options.”
Like the incumbent and former mayor, we also no longer have confidence that Coco Palms Hui has the financial means, the overall capacity or even the intent to see the redevelopment to completion.
While the two of us have had profound differences of view about issues of critical importance to Kauai over the last several years, we agree that the present situation is intolerable and a new path for this very special property must be found. Kauai County should seriously consider stripping Coco Palms Hui of its permit entitlements. To this end, we have agreed to set our differences aside and argue together for a positive path forward for Coco Palms.
In an effort to hear their side of the story, we contacted the would-be developers. In an email, Greene said he and Waters “are in discussions with a first-rate contractor” and reemphasized that identities of investors in the project are confidential.
Greene added that: “People have said they want to buy the property, but we have not seen any real offers.” He said he and Waters are “working diligently to do what is necessary to move the project forward.”
Coco Palms occupies a parcel that will in the very near future border a four-lane highway. The property is in both a flood zone and a tsunami zone. Its historical and cultural significance translate to a guarantee of the presence of ancient burial grounds. Addition of hundreds of new hotel rooms constructed there will materially worsen congestion, increase noise and contribute to the ongoing cultural disruption in Wailua.
Greene and Waters and whatever financial partners they may have clearly invested a significant amount of money in Coco Palms. They cannot simply be compelled to give it up without fair compensation. While purchase of the property by the county or state via eminent domain is an option, the current owners would doubtless resist and litigation over condemnation could drag on for years. However, other community-based options do exist.
Yes, this would be a huge challenge, but perhaps leadership for the effort might come from both within our own community and from one or more of the Hawaiian trusts, whose present day net values exceed $11 billion. These trusts have a vested interest in preserving the historical and cultural assets represented by this special property. They could help provide the necessary Native Hawaiian leadership. In addition, Kauai County and/or the State of Hawaii could also partner in the effort, perhaps selling bonds to help cover acquisition costs.
To be successful, such an effort would require that both the vision and the implementation be a genuine community-based, Hawaiian-driven planning process.
Imagine the possibilities. In an era in which the island desperately needs additional housing, the surviving concrete frame buildings at Coco Palms could be repurposed as kupuna housing, the property could also be transformed into a cultural park honoring both its ancient and modern history, it could host canoe hale, hula halau, music and educational facilities.
To that end, an organization like the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust (HILT) could assist in the process of finding a donor or donors and help manage moving forward the complex process such a transaction will require. Saving Coco Palms is clearly within their mission.
To launch this discussion and move our community down this path, Mayor Kawakami, along with the County Council, could establish a Coco Palms study commission. Its mission would be to facilitate a genuine community-based process, sufficient in scope so funding partners and all involved would have a clear idea of both the concept and the financial reality of the proposed project. In the past, Senate President Ron Kouchi actually secured state funding dedicated to such a planning project, but that effort stalled.
Imagine the possibilities. The time has come we believe, for our community to join together, begin the conversation that is needed, and move boldly down the path of transforming this very special place we call the Coco Palms into a renewed, culturally and spiritually significant place that we can all be once again, proud of.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.
Allan Parachini is a journalist and a former public relations executive. He is a Kilauea resident and furniture maker.