By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
One of Hilo’s prime properties has a new owner.
Wainaku Ventures LLC, whose sole principal is the Edmund C. Olson Trust II, has bought the Wainaku Executive Center from the estate of the late former C. Brewer & Co. honcho J.W.A. “Doc” Buyers. The sale cleared escrow on Monday, said the 81-year-old Olson, a major Ka‘u landowner, owner of Ka‘u Coffee Mill and chairman of A-American Storage Management, the seventh largest self-storage company in the country.
Olson said Monday he paid $7.7 million for the 12-acre property and 11,800-square-foot building, $800,000 less than the latest listed price and $1.8 million less than the asking price when the secluded oceanfront hideaway a half-mile north of Hilo’s “Singing Bridge” was put on the market in November 2010.
Olson said he wants to convert the property into a convention center and event venue and to eventually build a “small boutique hotel” with 12 to 18 rooms.
“It’s just a prime location, there’s no doubt of that,” he said. Noting his own background as a real estate developer, Olson said he would develop the site himself.
The property, on the site of the former Wainaku sugar mill, boasts 3,000 feet of shoreline with a black sand beach, while the office building, which was built in 1924, has been remodeled with koa wood interiors. C. Brewer, one of Hawaii’s “Big Five” sugar operations, relocated its headquarters there when the company moved to Hilo from Honolulu in 1998.
After Brewer dissolved in 2001, Buyers bought the property for $3.5 million with the intention of turning it into an upscale resort. According to the county’s Real Property Tax Office website, the latest assessed value of the property is about $5.2 million.
The land is currently zoned industrial and would have to be rezoned before a hotel could be built, but the property is immediately available for weddings, parties and small receptions, said Suzy Stensrud, an event organizer who works for Olson.
“The lanai on the second floor will be available for luncheons and meetings,” she said. “We’re getting together some preliminary plans for some outdoor pavilions.”
Added Olson: “We’ll have weddings right away, because most of the weddings will be done outside. We hope in 90 days we’ll be set up for meetings and conferences. We’re gonna extend some of the oceanfront offices … and make those offices bigger so they’ll be meeting rooms,” he said.
Both an high-end restaurant and a coffee shop — the latter already named Ka‘u Coffee Shop — are part of Olson’s vision for the building. He said he’s been “in discussions with a couple of Big Island restaurant operators” about opening there. He said there are a couple of kitchens in the building, but no certified restaurant kitchens.
Olson also envisions three art galleries, two that would display works of William McKnight and Kathleen Kam, and a third that would exhibit other artists’ works on a rotating basis.
The building was recently vacated by the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s College of Pharmacy but ML Macadamia still rents office space there. Olson said they’ve been given six months notice to find alternative digs.
The building sits on about three acres towards the south end of the property. On the seven acres north of the building, the mill itself and the sugar laboratory have been razed, but a former railroad tunnel, sans tracks, remains. John Cross, Olson’s property manager, said that with some work, the now-graffiti-scarred interior of the concrete enclosure could host fancy dinner parties.
“Imagine that you have an event here with a chef and a small piano or a band at one end — the acoustics of this place,” he said. “There are several spots on this property where you could have (different) events simultaneously.” A microbrewery and beer garden is another possibility for the tunnel, he said.
The mill, boiler room and lab used to stand just north of the tunnel. In their place is a stand of tall albizia trees, which Cross said all “came up since 1998.” He said the first order of business will be “extensive tree trimming, getting rid of some of these invasive trees here, and then cleaning up of the property, of the building itself, like the mold up there, moss.” He pointed to the building’s roof and eaves.
There’s a fishing trail the public uses for shoreline access near the northern opening of the tunnel and which Olson said he’d like to move “to the other end of the property.”
“That’s something we’d have to work out with the county,” he said.
Above the tunnel is a bridge over Mamalahoa Highway to 1.5 acres of land mauka of the road. Olson plans to use that parcel for parking.
“We could fit about 200 cars and a turnaround for a bus,” he said. “People could park over there and walk across the bridge. We’re also talking about little shuttle carts like you see at Disneyland or at Nani Mau.”
Asked about possible environmental impact statements or assessments, Olson and Cross noted that planning is in the preliminary stage and nothing is on paper at this point. Cross said that the site is part of the shoreline management area and any approved buildings would have to be set back at least 40 feet from the water.
“Ed’s goal is we’ve got to make the property better known and more available to the local people to use,” Cross said. “People don’t really know about this. They can’t see it (from the highway).”
Said Olson: “It’s gonna be a new thing for Hilo, a bit upscale, and we hope it works.”
Tribune-Herald staff writer Colin M. Stewart contributed.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.