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Steve Murray

Waimea Park Reports Financial Turnaround

After years of financial difficulties, Waimea Valley is finally making a profit.

The announcement was surely good news for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which purchased the property in 2006 and turned it over to Hiipaka LLC, a nonprofit organization that was created to run the valley.

One of Oahu’s major tourist attractions, the park had experienced annual operating losses of nearly $1 million. The final accounting for 2012 has not yet been completed, but Waimea Valley executive director Richard Pezzulo said the estimated operating surplus at this time is more than $180,000. In the two years prior, losses had totaled more than $1.7 million.

“We are riding the wave of increased tourism, but that doesn’t account for all of it,” said Pezzulo. “We’ve expanded our gift shop. We have reviewed our pricing structure in the gift shop. We’ve expanded out snack bar menu, trying to localize it as much as we can.

And we’ve been more efficient.”

Another large financial boost for the valley came in the form of highway signs the state Department of Transportation installed to help drivers find the park.

“Even though we spend quite a bit of money on advertising, most people either are driving on the North Shore, see the sign and come in or they are referred by a friend. If a lot of people are referred by family or friends, we’ve got to make sure they have a good experience.

So we really emphasized customer service.”

The valley was purchased for $14 million through a partnership with OHA, the city, state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the U.S. Army.

It wasn’t too long ago the previous owner, unable to make it a go as a garden visitor attraction, had put forth the idea of developing the valley for residential homes.

Widespread community protest led the county to condemn the valley and begin negotiations to purchase the land. Such a fate would have been nearly as unpleasant as if the previous owner had gone bankrupt, forcing a closure and the manicured walk-ways and gardens being taken over by wild-growing fauna.

“What we’re hearing from the community is that they are just so happy the way the valley has progressed,” said Pezzulo. “We do the Thursday night farmers market, and that really brings the community in. We are getting anywhere between 1,000 and 1,200 people showing up for that.”

Pezzulo came up with a five-year plan to increase revenue through initiatives aimed at increasing resident visitor totals to 30 percent by 2013 (they are currently at 23 percent), achieving operational sustainability by this year and increasing daily visitors to 800 a day by 2015. Right now they are two years ahead of schedule.

A final part of the plan is to make the valley a world-class botanical garden, cultural site and learning century by 2016. That plan, too, is ahead of schedule.

The old amphitheater site that was used for hula performances is being rebuilt. Funding from First Wind was used to purchase stone blocks that will replace rotting railroad ties that were used for seating.

All of the installation work has been done by volunteers, who provide contracting, materials and labor. A summer concert series that celebrates the rich history of music in Hawaii will run from June to August.

“The series is called ‘Generations and Traditions.’ The first group of performers will be the foundation groups – this will be either the early performers or the people who were mentored by or picked up the music of these early groups. The second concert is going to be innovators, those people who have taken the music in new directions and finally, the future.”

One big event planned for the innovators’ portion of the series is a salute to Gabby Pahinui, the famed Waimanalo musician who inspired future generations through his songwriting and guitar playing.

The restoration of the kauhale (community) site, as used by the kahuna nui (caretakers of the land) some 500 years ago, is to be rebuilt to serve as the cultural core of the valley.

“We feel it will be a major attraction for visitors who are looking for a genuine cultural experience,” said Pezzulo. “Out of all the places visitors go, we can really offer an authentic cultural experience because of the history of the valley.

“These are actually sites that Hawaiians developed. We have agricultural terracing, we have kauhale sites, we have shrines, we have the Hale o Lono Heiau. We are really looking at building up the cultural and historic sites in the valley.”

On another positive note, Proud Peacock restaurant, which has not been in operation for 10 years, is undergoing renovations and likely will reopen in May.

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