Wailua Community Says “No” to Another Hotel


In the three decades since it was destroyed by Hurricane ʻIniki, the former Coco Palms Hotel in Wailua, Kaua’i, has sat in ruins. The land beneath the rubble was once the seat of government for Kauaʻi’s ruling chiefs, a sacred wahi pana with countless cultural sites. A Utah-based developer has purchased the land to build another hotel, but a community group, I Ola Wailuanui, is trying to raise the funds to buy back the land and restore it for cultural enrichment, education, conservation and food production. – Photos: Courtesy of Mason Chock

It’s been 30 years since hurricane ʻIniki slammed into the island of Kauaʻi, razing and flattening much of the island. And the Coco Palms Hotel – made famous by the 1961 movie Blue Hawaiʻi starring Elvis Presley – was one of the casualties.

When the hurricane hit, the hotel had already lost most of its Hollywood glamour. Old and run-down, it quickly succumbed to the damaging winds and heavy rains and three decades later its ruins remain – a glaring eyesore that is unmissable from Kūhiō Highway.

Located in the ahupuaʻa of Wailua, the hotel was built in the lower river valley region known as Wailuanuiahoʻāno. This wahi pana (storied place) was once the social, economic, political and religious center of Kauaʻi, and the seat of government for the island’s ruling chiefs.

The area includes many significant sacred sites including heiau, burials, birthing stones, a bell stone, petroglyphs, ancient fishponds and canoe landings. An archaeological survey found that Wailua contained more heiau than any other ahupuaʻa on Kauaʻi.

Today, acres of the sacred lands at Wailuanuiahoʻāno are buried by the rubble and ruin of the Coco Palms; a 21st-century scrapyard of collapsed structures, broken glass and crumbling concrete.

Although the Coco Palms’ shine faded rather quickly after peaking during the height of Hollywood’s infatuation with Hawaiʻi kitsch, there have been several attempts over the years by developers hoping to restore the hotel to its former glory and cash in.

But plagued by years of stalled plans, ever-changing property owners, permitting hang-ups, environmental challenges (including ongoing severe flooding due to sea level rise), insufficient funding, and community protests, those attempts all failed.

However, that hasnʻt prevented Utah developer Reef Capital Partners from trying to move forward with its plans to build a 350-room hotel on the 40-acre site. Not surprisingly, their plan has received tremendous community opposition.

Today, Wailuanuiahoʻāno represents yet another struggle for Native Hawaiian ʻāina stewardship.

The fight for land rights, stewardship and restoration of Wailuanuiahoʻāno has been ongoing for decades but has escalated since Reef Capital Partners’ plans for the area were announced.

Mason Chock, vice chair of I Ola Wailuanui, a nonprofit formed by Wailua residents to protect Wailuanuiahoʻāno, said that the land is unique and significant and that it belongs in the hands of the Wailua community.

I Ola Wailuanui proposes the restoration and protection of the wahi pana via a community-driven process. Their vision is to “restore Wailuanuiahoʻāno to a flourishing space for cultural enrichment, education, conservation and food production.” They propose developing a Hawaiian cultural and education center and an agricultural park that can be used as a resource for the community in perpetuity.

At a May 10 meeting, Kauaʻi County Council Chair Mel Rapozo proposed that Kauaʻi County reclaim the Coco Palms site from the revolving bevy of developers via eminent domain.

“But that comes at a price,” Rapozo said to an audience of community members, many of whom attended to provide testimony against any further development. “Because with condemnation comes the real market value that we’ve got to pay [to the landowner]…[but] if this is what the community wants, we can get it done.”

By all accounts, the community definitely wants to reclaim the property although money is the biggest hurdle. At the council meeting, representatives for the developer said that they are willing to sell the land to the community for $22 million – their own purchase price.

Undaunted, I Ola Wailua Nui is raising money to purchase the land. Like Rapozo, the organization believes that buying back the land is the first step to realizing its vision.

“Purchasing the land is really just a means of stopping another hotel from being built. Our organization is focused on ensuring that the cultural and historical significance of that area is perpetuated for the community,” Chock said.

“We recognize that this particular property, historically and up until today, has lease rights as a hotel. But we don’t believe that that’s in the best interest of the community, from the standpoint of climate change, sea level rise and stewardship of this wahi pana,” Chock added.

He estimates that, in addition to the cost of purchasing the land, it will cost at least $10 million to achieve their ultimate goal: to clean and clear the land and hand it over to the community to steward. Nevertheless, Chock is optimistic.

“Looking at this project over the last two years. I feel like our organization has taken an active and necessary role toward working with the community and realizing their vision,” says Chock.

“Acquisition is just a means to an end, really. We don’t see ourselves as the organization to take over [stewardship] of this property. We are the ones to ensure that it goes to the community.”

The Kauaʻi Council resolution introduced at the May 10 meeting seeking reclamation of the land via eminent domain was deferred, but Rapozo has said that he plans to submit another resolution.

For more information go to www.wailuanui.org.