On a clear, calm evening in early November, a group of about 70 mostly North Shore residents gathered in front of the Old Maui High School in Hamakuapoko to hear how a group of investors planned to transform the abandoned, eerily beautiful 23.5-acre property, the island of Maui, and the world.
The for-profit organization TEACH (Technology-Education-Agriculture-Community-Health) seemed to be just a few Maui County Council votes away from acquiring a 60-year lease for $1 a year. In return, TEACH representatives Mark Chasan and Jason Hobson explained, their group proposed to create “a living laboratory, innovation campus and gathering place” to “foster increased and sustainable social, economic and environment benefit for Maui” and “improved health of…Earth’s systems.”
Translated into brick and mortar, the $56 million concept includes:
• A 32,000 sq. ft. Center for Agriculture & Permaculture
• Center for Living Technologies, Local Economy & the Regenerative Society (15,000 sq. ft.)
• Cultural Center for Preservation & Integration of Hawaiian Culture and Ancient Earth Wisdom (5,000 sq. ft.)
• Youth Camp (6,000 sq. ft.)
• An Optimal Wellness & Personal Development Center (23,000 sq. ft.)
• Eco-Social Entrepreneurship Center (14,000 sq. ft.)
• Amphitheater, Stage and Event Park (5,000 sq. ft.)
• Conference Facility (22,000 sq. ft.)
• Restaurant, Patio Dining, Teaching Kitchen (7,000 sq. ft.); Gift Shop (6,000 sq. ft.); Glamping, Camping & Student and Worker Housing (59,000 sq. ft.)
• Applied Education Center (9,000 sq. ft.)
• Everything else (3,500 sq. ft.)
As Teena Rasmussen from the mayor’s Office of Economic Development (OED), county Environmental Coordinator Rob Parsons and Richard Lucas, representing the Friends of Old Maui High School (the property’s current caretakers) beamed approval, Chasan opened his arms to the crowd and declared, “I’m just a haole dude from the mainland; I need to learn a lot. We want to collaborate to build a healthy Maui together. We want to demonstrate to the world that it’s possible to do good.”
And that’s when the wheels got wobbly on the magic bus. Instead of receiving a standing ovation for the buzzword-laden power point presentation that followed, Chasan and Hobson found themselves gob smacked by a barrage of less-than-friendly questions.
One woman, describing herself as an environmental engineer, said, “I know about everything you’re discussing.”
Chasan enthusiastically welcomed her input as a member of a soon-to-be formed citizen’s advisory board. “I don’t want to be on an advisory board,” she shot back. “I want a job.”
Recent county council candidate Tiare Lawrence asked exactly what TEACH was thinking to create 200,000 square feet of new space when nearby Paia had only 150,000 sq. feet of commercial space. A local waterman wanted to know what would happen to Ho‘okipa; commuters asked about increased traffic on the already congested Hana Highway and business types wondered why a for-profit group of mostly off-island investors was getting a nonprofit lease price of $1 a year (by comparison, the Fat Chicks Burgers concession at the Waiehu Golf Course pays $32,412 a year to the county). But the main questions thrust at Hobson and Chasan, both California lawyers, were numerous variations of “who are you guys and why are we just hearing about this plan now?” That night, the meeting ended with a pule led by Paia activist Francine “Aunty Mopsy” Aarona, who asked for everyone who cared about the Hamakuapoko land to come together “and make it pono.”
With Maui’s West and South sides packed with hotels, condos and other developments, it was only a matter of time before attention turned to the island’s relatively quiet North Shore, home to Paia, some small commercial areas in Haiku and little else in the way of development. The pushback against TEACH’s proposal is the current manifestation of the anxiety North Shore residents feel as the last canefields burn and almost certain alterations to their landscape and the region’s laid-back lifestyle loom.
But those concerns are colliding with the financial costs that Maui County continues to incur with the costly upkeep of the deserted campus, and with the strong emotional attachment of high school alumni, who are laser-focused on finding someone to preserve the remains of their beloved institution.
Long before A&B announced its exit from the sugar cane business, representatives from the Friends of the Old Maui High School (FOMHS) paid a visit to OED Director Rasmussen. The nonprofit group was at its wit’s end about the campus, an expensive thorn in the county’s side since the school–opened in 1913–closed in 1972. Used by the University of Hawaii for experiments with hybrid plants from 1975 to 2000, the campus disintegrated shortly thereafter. The well collapsed and the cesspool system was removed. Three arson fires, rampant vandalism and jungle-like overgrowth threatened the rest of the property. In 2005, a group of alumni and preservationists reached an agreement with the county to pay the nonprofit FOMHS some $65,000-$100,000 a year to maintain the property (actually two parcels: a 22.158 parcel loaned by the state to Maui County and a 1.38 acre county parcel) while the group looked for someone financially able to restore the infrastructure and preserve what was left of its historic Charles W. Dickey-designed administration building, among other structures.
FOMHS program manager Richard Lucas recalls more than two dozen entities proposing uses at one time or another. They included a prison, an animal shelter, charter schools, a middle school and a high school. But after studying the campus’ condition, he told council members at a recent meeting, “they all walked away.”
Now, the Friends wanted to walk away, too. Their members were aging and could no longer care for the property. They needed the county’s help. Using a master plan developed after six community input meetings in 2007 (which called for an environmental education center) and state guidelines that required that the property be used for public purposes, including education and agriculture, Maui County issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) in late 2014, offering a 20-year lease at $1 per year to a qualified party. By the March 2015 deadline, there was only one viable proposal submitted, according to Rasmussen. It came from TEACH Development LLC.
TEACH Development LLC was created only to deliver the RFP. After 19 months, the group still has no apparent website and no formal office, just a Honolulu address used by an engineering firm run by TEACH Chairman Mel Chiogioji. It’s an unusual consortium of individuals to be clamoring to develop an environmental Eden. According to CEO Chasan, the original group consisted mainly of individuals with backgrounds in military and defense agencies. In the proposal, two are retired officers, two others list the Defense Information Systems Agency as a major employer/client and a third worked as Comptroller for the Defense Information Contracting Organization for 25 years.
More understandable is Glenn Mason, a well-respected Honolulu-based architect with deep experience in historical architecture and culturally sensitive sites, who first inspected the cmpus in 2006.
Aside from Mason and Chiogioji, a retired Rear Admiral whose company, Mele Associates, works on big engineering projects such as nuclear reactors, none of the other consortium members have spoken publicly on TEACH’s behalf, or are mentioned anywhere but in the original proposal.
“Most of that team was attached when I first saw the RFP,” Chasan explained. “I brought in Jason (Chief Development Officer and General Counsel Hobson, who runs his California law practice from his home in Paia, has considerable expertise in low-income housing and tax credit financing), and Bill Reed,” CEO of Regenesis, a leader in green building design.
“I am the visionary and architect of [the TEACH concept],” Chasan says, “but I have to say these people who spent their lives in military and government are amazing executors. They’re smart, honest and have integrity. They’re retired now and want to leave a legacy by doing something good.”
As for Chasan’s bio, he is “of counsel” to Hobson’s firm, Hobson, Bernardino + Davis, and the two also work at Transformative Group, an organization that its website says helps companies morph into “Whole and Healthy businesses.” He’s also founder, Chairman and “Chief Visionary AWEfficer” of A.W.E. (Abundance, Wellness & Enlightenment) Global, Inc., which—along with Transformative Group—has a contact address that corresponds to Chasan’s San Rafael, CA home. Part of AWE Global is the creation of AWE Centers, described on its website as “utilizing whole-person/whole-systems approaches” and integrating under one roof “collaborative workspace, wellness space and personal development space” and providing “outsourced enterprise services to create “Abundant, Well & Enlightened People and Organizations for a Thriving Planet.” Chasan said he got the idea after “a big download” in 2010 (although he registered an AWE trademark with the U.S. Patent Office in 2004 as a “health club service”). He says he has been unable to create any AWE centers to date “because it’s hard to find land that has the right zoning.” He says the OMHS property is perfect.
After receiving the TEACH proposal and a full endorsement from the Friends of OMHS board of directors, the county and TEACH hammered out an agreement. When the proposed lease went before the Economic Development, Energy, Agriculture and Recreation (EAR) Committee in early August, two people stepped forward to offer supportive public testimony: Barbara Long, past president of FOMH and board member Kathy McDuff.
In additional to the expansion from a 20-year lease to a 60-year lease (for $1 a year), the original lease terms provided for a five-year tax abatement and required the county to make improvements to Holomua Rd, the five-mile partially paved, heavily damaged link between Baldwin Ave. and the Hana Highway. The TEACH RFP also demanded assurances that if it needed permits, it wanted them “in a significantly shorter timeframe than the ‘business as usual’ timeframe from the County Authorities.”
By the second EAR meeting in August, several other members of the public appeared and registered some alarm at the lease terms and conditions. As a result, when the lease passed out of committee and came before the full county council on Sept. 16, the tax abatement clause had been separated from the lease and road improvement would only happen with “funding appropriations.”
Again, a supportive group of Old Maui High School board members and alumni offered public testimony in support of the TEACH proposal, calling it a “noble mission that would benefit future generations.” The Maui Chamber of Commerce sent a letter of approval as well.
But a handful of other testifiers weren’t as positive. Traffic issues were raised, along with concerns that the for-profit enterprise would invalidate the state-mandated use of the land for public purposes.
Pukalani resident Carin Enovijas was particularly leery of TEACH’s requests for road improvements and expedited permitting. She noted the abundance of “environmentally and culturally friendly buzzwords,” adding that the county asked for “no demands from TEACH that it will actually provide the numerous for-profit services they describe, which seems to entail everything from ending global hunger… to balancing the forces of good and evil.”
Instead of approving the lease and sending it to Mayor Alan Arakawa to sign, Council members unanimously voted to return it to the EAR committee for further review and consideration. Councilmember Riki Hokama suggested that the county allow “right of entry” to TEACH to perform due diligence on the property prior to signing the lease, an idea supported by Councilmember and OMHS alumna Gladys Baisa: “Then there wouldn’t be as much concern for a long-term contract.”
When the EAR committee convened on Nov. 15, just days after the fractious Old Maui High School gathering, the coconut wireless had clearly been thrumming. Residents packed council chambers to offer testimony about the plan and more than 75 emils were delivered. Although a few people—mostly from Friends of Old Maui High School—spoke strongly in support of the project, most railed against the idea. The proposal was described as “a luxury windsurfer hotel on free land,” “fishy” and “suspicious.” Other speakers faulted the Office of Economic Development and the Friends of Old Maui High School for not suggesting earlier to TEACH principals that they meet with the community. “They should have known better and had these discussions months ago,” said local filmmaker Sam Shaw. “[TEACH was] misinformed.”
As Chasan and Hobson somberly watched from their seats, opposition washed over council chambers with the intensity of a Peahi breaker.
“You’re effectively creating another Paia five miles down the road,” Paia businessman Martin Brass told committee members. “This is a classic public-private partnership and we’re getting the short end of the stick.” Martin later wrote the committee that he was “gravely concerned” about the financial terms of the lease which he saw as totally unbalanced in favor of TEACH (the organization projects $17 million in income starting in year five, with the county continuing to receive only $1 a year).
In written testimony, realtor Nicole Spalding suggested that the county show the lease to a group of “experienced real estate professionals” since it “seems to be insufficient or incomplete in many ways.” Surfers like Matt Meola weighed in about the potential impact on Ho‘okipa, worrying about “runoff ruining and killing our reefs and fish. I’m worried about traffic… there is already a huge lack of parking…”
Finally, Chairman Don Guzman spoke up, after noting that some 50 speakers were still waiting to give testimony. “My plans are to defer this matter.” The chamber erupted in applause and cheering, and the crowd quickly thinned.
OED Director Rasmussen was upset by some of the public comments, telling the committee the lease was not just $1 per year. “This land has been costing the county about $75,000 a year to maintain and it hasn’t generated property tax for 40 years. We are taking care of it for no public purpose at all,” she said. “When TEACH assumes the lease, they will immediately owe $13,500 per year in property tax, based on the buildings that are currently there and property maintenance will fall on them as well. So that’s a gain of almost $100,000 to the county that we can use on other open space projects.”
Rasmussen added, “A lot of people in the community are thinking that approving this lease is the end. It is just the beginning of the process. They’ll need to do a traffic assessment, get permits for everything—it will be a huge process. And we know there needs to be more community engagement.”
Two and a half hours into the hearing, Hobson and Chasan sat before committee members. “If we’re going to make this work, you’ve got to gain the trust of the community,” Guzman told the pair. “One community meeting is a start, but there’s a whole North Shore community that you can meet with individually and in groups.” He warned them, “Don’t give us the heavy lifting. We are not going to go out and do your job to make the community trust you—you’ve got to do that. Show that it’s a legitimate purpose and that you have true intentions. Until then, I think you need more outreach and I think you understand that.”
Several days later, Chasan reflected on the process he’d been through. “I guess our mistake was not knowing. We believed that the Friends of the Old Maui High School got deep community engagement and that the community had already bought off on it. We talked to the council; they thought it was fantastic. It met everything they wanted to see, so it was looking like it was going to go through.”
Chasan maintains that TEACH’s proposal is just a “vision,” not a concrete plan. “All we were saying is, ‘Here’s an idea. We believe it can be economically viable.’ The actual plan will come once the lease is signed, which will unlock the investment we need in order to do more community engagement and collaboration.”
Chasan also claims that his group conducted no studies prior to applying for the lease, other than “high level market research.” Despite a number of reports already conducted on the physical condition of the site, Chasan said his group doesn’t know what the condition of the land is environmentally, how much it will actually cost to build TEACH’s vision or whether anyone will come once it’s built.
When asked about the project’s size compared to Paia, Chasan explained that repairing the infrastructure to “ground level” would take some $23 million. “We can’t do that with a small project. So we may end up saying the community doesn’t want something of this size, so all we can do is historic renovation, but will that make economic sense? After we spend $600,000 in the first six months, we may find that the project doesn’t work at all.”
But Chasan flatly dismissed the suggestion raised by Councilmembers Hokama, Baisa and Guzman that TEACH be allowed “right of entry” to do its due diligence prior to signing the lease. “When we have a lease, investors will invest and we’ll need ongoing financing while we do our due diligence.”
And of course, TEACH will be talking to the community. A lot. “We’re planning on holding a community meeting at Ho‘okipa in January and we’ll continue to work with various community and spiritual leaders to listen to their suggestions, until we’ve reached a point of truly having enough community input,” Chasan said. “At that point, we’ll either say, ‘It makes no sense to proceed,’ or we will ask to put it back on the committee docket before the new council.”
He remains upset by suggestions that his group plans to create a “resort” or “a theme park” or a hotel. “Those are things we’ve been wrongfully accused of,” he said, insisting, “I’m not a developer. I’m a guy who wants to do something good in the world.”
Cover Design: Darris Hurst
Cover Photo: Justin Edwards/Droneabove.com