Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Johanna Leaird is training her puppy, Freckles, as an assistance dog.

Blind woman
envisions isle retreat
for handicapped

She'll be competing for funding
at a business forum here next week

By Lyn Danninger

Pacific Business Forums, a company that brings entrepreneurs and industry experts together in a series of business forums is kicking off a business plan competition in Honolulu next week.

"Fusion 2002" -- Hawaii's New Venture Showcase will showcase business plans from throughout the state and the Asia-Pacific region. Two years ago, the competition was first held in Tokyo.

Business plans must be for a business based in or destined for Hawaii or Asia or from a Hawaii resident living abroad.

Fusion 2002, co-sponsored by Hawaii Pacific University, is open to anyone with a coherent business plan who is looking for a way to implement it, said Lisa LaBonte, president of Pacific Business Forums.

Those submitting plans do not necessarily have to be seeking large-scale funding. The goal could be to seek anything from a bank loan to angel investment, seed financing or venture capital, LaBonte said.

So far there are about 50 entrants, LaBonte said. Ten finalists will be chosen in late May with five winners selected in June. Prizes for the winning teams total $100,000 in cash and service awards.

The competition also offers an opportunity to those selected as semifinalists to meet with experts, have their plans reviewed, filtered and tightened up, LaBonte said.

Financiers and investors from Asia, Hawaii and the mainland will be on hand for the finalist presentations, making it possible to pitch business deals.

One of those entered is Johanna Leaird. Those who have heard her plan say she is as determined as any of her competitors for it to succeed.

Leaird plans to develop a non-profit resort, educational facility and retreat in Hawaii that caters to the blind and disabled. She believes her idea not only fills a much-neglected need but makes good business sense, like something that she could use herself.

Leaird, 48, lost her vision in 1986, before completing a degree at Cornell University.

But with a background and education in tourism and hotel management, for the last couple of years she has been putting her knowledge to work. Leaird researched the idea and has traveled extensively to visit a number of similar facilities around the world.

Nothing like it exists in Hawaii, she said. But with more than 10 million blind people in the United States alone, Leaird believes such a facility in Hawaii would become a popular destination.

The inn and its programs would cater to local, mainland and foreign handicapped visitors as well as sighted people who may be assisting loved ones or friends who are handicapped, she said.

With the change in the state's quarantine law allowing service dogs to bypass quarantine, a major hurdle was eliminated. It is possible for those requiring animal assistance to visit Hawaii, she said.

Ideally, Leaird would like to either purchase or get a donation of land in upcountry Maui to build a 10-room retreat. According to her business plan, she is looking to borrow $900,000 to build the retreat.

Because the retreat would be classified as a non-profit retreat and school, it could receive grants, donations and federal funding. Visitors would pay daily rates similar to those charged in other Hawaii hotels and resorts.

She is also contributing her own assets to the plan and is in the process of creating a trust. She plans to make available to visitors a beach-front cottage on the grounds of her home in Mokuleia Beach Colony to help support the project.

"That way it will perpetuate after I'm gone," she said.

Leaird has received endorsements from a number of individuals and organizations such as the Hawaii chapter of the Lion's Club and the YMCA. A growing number of volunteers have supplied both help and advice, she said. She hopes the facility would be accredited with both the state Department of Education and the Hawaii Center for Independent Living.

Leaird envisions a design along the lines of a Japanese Inn or retreat. The facility which would include such features a tactile garden and an aviary.

"There would be art work and different things for people to touch," she said. It already has a name: "The Birds and Blossoms Retreat."

Eventually Leaird plans to offer classes and programs for guests to choose from, including programs to help blind guests update their daily living skills and mobility.

With no formal recreational programs offered for the handicapped in Hawaii, Leaird said she would develop programs in conjunction with the YMCA. She also envisions other ideas like special cooking classes that could be developed with the help of some of Hawaii's famous chefs. Customized tours for disabled visitors would also eventually be added, she said.

Leaird believes there is a market for the idea. Blind and handicapped people also work and go on vacation. They also like to learn and better themselves, she said. To get the word out, she also plans to visit and promote the retreat at local and national organizations and conferences for the blind. If everything goes according to schedule, Leaird believes Birds and Blossoms could be completed by September 2004 and open for business in January 2005.

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