By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Nani Mau Gardens has a new owner.
Glory Nani Mau LLC, a company owned by California travel mogul Yee Shum Severson, purchased the landmark 53-acre property in late May, seller Ken Fujiyama confirmed on Wednesday.
According to county tax records, the sales price is $2.2 million. Fujiyama’s Nani Mau Inc. bought the botanical garden, restaurant, gift shop and event venue on Hilo’s southern outskirts from Toyoma Garden Hilo Inc. for $2 million in 1999. The records also indicate Severson paid $38,973.81 in delinquent property taxes Fujiyama owed for 2010 and 2011, plus $4,521.39 in interest and $2,634.49 in penalties.
The Chinese-born Severson, known professionally as Helen Koo, owns America Asia Travel Center, a Monterey Park, Calif.-based travel agency specializing in package tours, mostly to Chinese visitors. Severson said she’s the sole owner of Glory Nani Mau and is “thinking about opening before Christmas this year.”
“Our plan for the restaurant is leasing out. The garden I’m gonna fix up nice,” Severson said on Wednesday. She said her plans include selling memberships to local residents and bringing in Chinese tour groups, as well as marketing to cruise ship visitors and Japanese tourists.
“The garden is such a beautiful place …,” Severson said. “That it’s closed is a waste.”
Severson said that interior renovations are currently under way. Work on the garden will start after remodeling is completed, she said.
Severson said she doesn’t own any other tourist destinations.
Asked if he sold the property because of financial difficulties, Fujiyama replied: “Not really,” but later conceded that “the economy is affecting everything in Hilo.”
“We were winding down, because we were trying to sell it,” he said, then backtracked. “Not trying to sell it, but because we are concentrating on the (Hawaii) Naniloa (Volcanoes Resort) side.”
Fujiyama, as he has in the past, also criticized state tourism officials for policies he said favors Kona and Kohala over Hilo.
The county’s assessed market value in 2012 is $681,300 for the land and $877, 400 for the buildings. Fujiyama said he believes Nani Mau should actually be worth about $4 million, partly due to two statues on the property by famed Brazilian sculptor Yutaka Toyota.
Nani Mau has been closed since at least March, and the Edmund C. Olson trust filed a federal foreclosure suit on the company and Fujiyama over two separate mortgage notes, for $2 million and $1 million, issued June 26, 2008, to Nani Mau Inc. Fujiyama said he’s paid off the larger loan, and a court order dated on May 31 dismissed the action on the $2 million mortgage with prejudice, which means that claim can’t be refiled. The order also dismissed Olson’s claim on the $1 million mortgage without prejudice, meaning the major Ka‘u landowner can sue Fujiyama again if he falls behind on payments. Fujiyama said he now owes Olson a little less than a million.
“Dealing with Olson, I didn’t expect it to get to that stage,” Fujiyama said.
Fujiyama and Nani Mau LLC still face a state civil lawsuit brought last year by Don Hoota, owner of Don’s Grill in Hilo, his partner Joni Uemura, and their company, Makalika LLC. They’re seeking $490,000 in reimbursement plus damages over a proposed subdivision on a 30-acre property adjacent to the garden that hasn’t come to fruition.
“The court extended it to give us time to try to pay them off,” Fujiyama said.
The Tribune-Herald was unable to contact Hoota and Uemura’s lawyers, Henry and Roy Nakamoto, on Wednesday.
Fujiyama has also had problems with the 65-year state lease his Hawaii Outdoors Tours won in a September 2005 public auction for the Naniloa Volcanoes Resort hotel and golf course on Banyan Drive in Hilo. Fujiyama paid $6.1 million for the property and agreed to make $5 million in improvements within three years after assuming the lease on Feb. 1, 2006. He’s also required to pay $250,000 rent every six months in advance.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources earlier this year deducted $250,000 from a $500,000 performance bond to pay a late rent payment on the Naniloa, according to Fujiyama and DLNR Land Division Administrator Russell Tsuji.
“Actually, he’s due for another (rent) payment today, I think another $250 (thousand),” Tsuji said on Wednesday.” … The bond amount now (also) needs to be replenished, with the remaining $250 (thousand). … Technically, he’s owing about a half a million dollars.”
Gordon Heit, DNLR’s Hilo district land agent, said the bond was put up by First Regional Bank/First Citizens Bank of Torrance, Calif., which also loaned Fujiyama $10 million to buy and renovate the Naniloa.
Tsuji said he’s discussed Fujiyama’s bond and rent with the bank.
“They do intend to come in if Ken doesn’t cure it himself and take care of it,” he said.
Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune- herald.com.