Talk Story


A romantic investment
opportunity beckons
from paradise

THE REAL ESTATE boom of the late 1980s and 1990s has peaked, slumped and plateaued virtually everywhere, but especially here in Hawaii. Speculator Gensiro Kawamoto, who once cruised Honolulu suburbs buying houses from the back seat of a limousine, is now selling half of them.

Still, real estate remains a fascination. When I travel, I find myself browsing local ads to see what I might have gotten for what I paid here. The listings spur fantasies of other lifestyles and climates -- ah, climate! There's the rub.

That's how I stumbled on the ad for Mauna Kea Ranch in the Wall Street Journal real estate pages. Among the Arizona golf resorts, California condos, strip malls, renovated La Jolla retail space and "multi-tenanted prime commercial" property in Rhode Island, I spotted the heading "Hawaii."

The view from Volcano looking up Wright Road, with Mauna Kea looming above, is a vision of rural splendor.

Beneath it, a single ad promised: "$10,535,000 Below Current Appraisal -- Big Island's Mauna Kea Ranch, approx. 8,650 acres fee simple. 3,000 to 8,100 ft. elevation. Rich soil, Spectacular ocean/mountain views ... Price: $12,500,000 FIRM." Included: "Ranch village with 16 historic homes, community hall, corrals, clean air ... Perfect for corporate retreat, ranching."

THE AD seemed out of place. An investor with $12.5 million could reap far better returns elsewhere. For example, there's a 140,000 square-foot Wal-Mart in New Jersey going for just $1.03 million in cash plus an $8.6 million assumable mortgage. Or, there's a new apartment complex in Oshkosh, Wis., for a mere $7.8 million. But could either have the romance of owning an entire paniolo village?

According to the Clark Realty Web site, "When the ranch was established around 1885, Umikoa Village became home to ranch hands and their families. Sixteen residences, most built between 1885 and 1930, cluster at about 3,500 feet surrounded by lush grass, ancient trees, sweeping ocean views and a gentle quietness that has become almost impossible to find anywhere in the world."

You certainly wouldn't find much gentle quietness at the Kmart store being offered for $7.2 million in Tampa or the "Disaster Recovery/ Mission Critical Building" in downtown Ft. Lauderdale that features quick access to I-95 and the airport and is "adjacent to fiber routes."

Fiber routes? Forget the information superhighway; Mauna Kea Ranch is barely on the information cow path. "Electricity and telephone are available in the village area," the agents assure potential buyers, but the rest of the infrastructure is a bit iffy.

"Water has traditionally been supplied by catchment. The existing catchment system is now in poor repair but when in good condition was said to be capable of storing water in holding tanks at the top and middle of the ranch."

The property is not exactly in the middle of nowhere. It's 35 miles from Hilo, 25 miles from Kamuela, 63 miles from Kona, 45 minutes from Kohala Coast hotels and approximately 4 miles from Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge.

No, that's not the exact middle. But it's close.

Sure, for the money you could buy any of 42 former Walgreens drug stores -- a measly $155 million buys the lot. Or, you could pick up 7.5 acres in downtown Palm Springs for $2.3 million. It's already approved for building a 192-unit senior assisted-living facility.

But you'd forfeit adventure. "With a four-wheel drive," Mauna Kea's online brochure says, "adventurous visitors can cross Kukaiau Ranch along the Mana Road, an unpaved road which circles Mauna Kea. Once inside the ranch gates, grassy trails show the cowboys' favorite routes."

BACK IN '89, a friend of mine shared a house in Portlock with five flight attendants. The owner had rented it out while deciding whether to sell it "as is" for $7.2 million or to tear it down and build a new house to offer for $13 million. Those were the days.

Now, for a half-million less a buyer could own Mauna Kea Ranch, where "on a clear day, the entire coastline comes into view. Visible across the water, Maui's Haleakala raises its head above the clouds," the brochure gushes. "At about 4,500 feet, rare native koa trees stand silhouetted against the mist."

Would-be shopping-center buyers ought to take a look. Clark Realty promises more than just history, panoramic views, fruit orchards and open pastures. "This property is perfect for a private ranch home, forestry, ranching, or establishing a guest ranch using existing facilities at the historic ... Umikoa Village."

Zoning now allows one single-family house per 40 acres, so development options are limited. However, a "colorful past and Hawaiian cowboy traditions are still reflected in the songs and stories originating on the ranch."

You just can't say that about a Walgreen's.

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
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