By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The former Naniloa Volcanoes Resort’s days of being simply a hotel may be numbered.
The new owners of the Hilo establishment, being temporarily re-named the Naniloa Hilo Hotel, are promising an entirely new experience for travelers, with a marine and historical theme that will put the Big Island’s past and Hawaii’s artists on display.
Real estate developer Ed Bushor said Tuesday the 383-room hotel, acquired recently through bankruptcy, will be part museum with historical items from the Edmund C. Olson Trust featured throughout its lobby and hallways. That will be mixed with art from local and world-renowned artists, including Robert Wyland, known for his murals of whales and other sea life, he said.
“I want people to come in and not know if this is a museum or if is this a hotel,” said Bushor, who acquired the beleaguered hotel in a partnership with Ed Olson, Aqua Hospitality and what he called a “hand full” of other investors.
The 1960s-era hotel sits on Hilo Bay and offers hard-to-beat views of Mauna Kea and downtown Hilo.
While it has struggled over the years, Bushor, of Oahu, said he sees plenty of potential.
“I saw it the moment I walked on the property,” he said. “I fell in love with Hilo.”
The partnership, known as WHR LLC, took ownership of the hotel and its nine-hole golf course Tuesday, and it was already getting to work on its ambitious makeover plans.
The first step is cleaning up the Banyan Drive property, Bushor said, and workers were busy clearing weeds from the lobby’s roof and tending to planters near its entrance.
That will follow with a new coat of paint for the outside of the buildings plus floor-by-floor renovations and other landscaping work.
That includes the placement of new art and other features, such as a life-sized statue of a young humpback whale that guests will see as soon as they enter the lobby. The whale, Bushor said, will stand three stories tall on the makai side and is one example of how he plans to transform the property into the hotel that he says Hilo deserves.
The hotel will remain open during renovations, he said.
Other plans include a sculpture garden and “water features,” including one with dolphins spraying water over the entrance to the hotel.
“You need to hear the water, see the water and you need to smell Hawaii everywhere in the hotel,” Bushor said. “And then you’ll have an experience.”
The hotel will be similar in concept to the former Wyland Waikiki, which he sold after two years to Marriott.
“We don’t plan to sell this property,” Bushor said.
In connection with its museum theme, the hotel will have “curators” instead of bellmen escort guests to their rooms, some of which will have themes from individual artists or musicians, he said. Hotel keys will be replaced with “museum passes.”
Hallways, now largely bare and white, will be decorated with art and lit with museum-style lighting, Bushor said.
WHR LLC spent about $7 million acquiring the hotel, he said. Of that, $5.2 million went for the hotel itself. The rest covered defaults from the previous owner, Hawaii Outdoor Tours.
Bushor said another $20 million will be spent on renovations and “soft costs,” such as building permits.
He also said he has a “handshake agreement” with musician Willie K on opening a lounge on the property, with entertainment that he hopes will attract Hilo residents.
But even with the investment, is there enough demand to fill the rooms?
Bushor and Benjamin Rafter, president and CEO of Aqua Hospitality, both said they don’t expect occupancy to be a problem.
“Hilo is starved for this,” Rafter said. “The demand is there for Hilo. The (service) isn’t there.”
Aqua Hospitality is managing the property.
Rafter said the hotel now employs 37 people but it will have more than 100 employees once renovations are finished.
Bushor expects renovations to take a year to complete.
By December 2014, he plans to hold a soft opening under a new name followed by a grand opening on New Year’s Eve.
“We will work day and night to get this done,” Bushor said.
By buying the hotel, the new owners also take on the $500,000 a year lease with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
About 58 years remain on the lease, and Bushor said he can work with the price, which is higher than nearby properties.
Olson said he is excited to be part of the project and be able to put the trust’s archives on display.
He believes it will encourage more tourists to stay overnight in Hilo rather than driving to Kona or flying back to Oahu.
“It’s a great opportunity for Hilo,” Olson said.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.