Anyone who spends US$260 million on a property could reasonably expect to do with it as they please. Potential owners of Molokai Ranch, a 55,575-acre tract on Hawaii’s Molokai island, however, might quickly discover that a quarter-billion dollars doesn’t necessarily buy you the right to do what you want.
The ranch occupies roughly 35 per cent of Molokai, Hawaii’s fifth-largest island. The property sits on the island’s western end and includes lush pastureland, tropical rainforest, two towns, and more than 20 miles of private beach. There are two resorts on the ranch, along with an extant (and operating) agricultural and cattle business. More than a ranch, the property represents the possibility to become a wealthy buyer’s vast, private, Eden.
Except there’s a hitch. “We have a very strong activist community on this island,” said Richard (“Rikki”) Cooke III, an island resident and descendant of one of the ranch’s first owners. “They don’t want change, and they don’t want outsiders.” Should an ambitious developer purchase the ranch and its miles of pristine white beaches, “they’d never have a chance on this island,” he said confidently.
How it started
To understand the origins of the saga currently unfolding on Molokai, it helps to start with the ranch’s origins. The tract began as a sheep ranch owned by the Hawaiian royal family, but when that dynasty’s last surviving member died in 1884, her lands (numbering hundreds of thousands of acres across Hawaii’s islands) were transferred into an estate. A few years later, the estate sold the land on Molokai to a group of Hawaiian businessmen who began to turn it into a sugar plantation. A decade after that, one of those businessman, Charles M. Cooke, bought out his partners and officially founded Molokai Ranch.
Relatively soon after embarking on the sugar plantation mission, however, its new owner discovered that pineapples “grew beautifully” on the island. According to the aforementioned Rikki Cooke, his ancestor Charles duly pivoted, shipping in hundreds of labourers to harvest pineapples. “It’s very difficult work,” said Cooke. “To pick the pineapples meant walking through cactuses, with bugs everywhere, and the pineapples themselves had points that could cut you.”
Despite the back-breaking, hazardous tasks, employees came to stay on the ranch, and the Cooke family occupied a sort of benign, feudal position: They built a town, owned a bank, invested heavily in infrastructure and tourism, and funded virtually every civic building on the island.
“When someone was hired by Molokai Ranch, they were hired for life,” said Cooke. “It was a much closer community at that point.”
In its heyday, the ranch produced pineapples on 14,000 acres, had an active hotel (the 22-room Kaluakoi resort, which had 198 rooms, was located along the coast), and a farming operation with pastures full of cattle and sheep. The family even donated 25,000 acres to the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act for use by native Hawaiians, in perpetuity.
By the early 1980s, the ranch was in trouble. Pineapples had grown so beautifully, it turned out, thanks to Heptachlor, an insecticide that played a star turn in Rachel Carson’s 1960s bestseller Silent Spring. When Heptachlor was banned, the ranch’s pineapple operation began to suffer. High labour costs, Cooke said, finished it off; in 1988, in what he described as a “friendly takeover,” the ranch was bought by New Zealand-based Brierley Investments Ltd., which eventually morphed into the Singapore-based investment holding company, GL Ltd., in turn controlled by Hong Kong based Guoco Group Ltd., an investment holding company. Guoco Group, ultimately, is a part of Malaysia’s Hong Leong Group, whose founder, Tan Sri Quek Leng Chan, has a net worth of US$5.1 billion, according to Bloomberg.
Starting in the mid 1990s, the company made various attempts to develop projects on the ranch. It constructed the luxurious, 22-room Molokai Ranch Lodge inland and began to embark on an ambitious scheme along the coast. After investing heavily in municipal infrastructure, such as water pipes and utilities, it submitted, with the endorsement of various elected officials, a plan to build a luxury subdivision; part of the plan included donating more than 1,000 acres to the island for conservation purposes.
But GL managed to alienate a vocal segment of the 7,000-person population. “Residents of Molokai don’t like to be bullied,” said Alan Arakawa, mayor of the city and county of Maui, under whose jurisdiction Molokai Island falls. “They don’t like to be told what to do,” he said. “They have a lifestyle that they’d like to preserve.”
By Arakawa’s telling, the problems began when the new owner decided to build a luxury residential development, a subdivision on a picturesque outcropping known as La’au Point.
“They just did what they felt like doing,” Arakawa said, “which was to lock off the beaches and build an exclusive type of housing.” The islanders felt isolated from development discussions, which, said the mayor, “didn’t go down well.”
Along with the usual protests came more extreme incidents: In 1995, a ranch holiday cottage was burned and in 1996, five miles of water pipes were destroyed.
In the meantime, the Kaluakoi resort, leased to a Japanese company, “was doing just fine, but the company went bankrupt, so they shut it down” in 2001, Cooke said. This added to the island’s already swelling ranks of unemployed. (GL kept the resort’s golf course open.)
As its members became more frustrated, the Molokai community found it had recourse to stop some of the changes. To develop on the island, GL needed to obtain a building permit that must be approved by a locally elected town council. After protesters succeeded in blocking the plans, GL announced in 2008 that it would shut the entire ranch – hotels, golf courses, and farming. A skeleton crew of about a dozen people maintains the land and tends the enduring cattle.
In an emailed statement about the hoped-for sale of the property, the company said: “The GL Group’s current strategic focus is on its hotel business, which is headquartered in London. We find that we presently do not possess the required expertise nor resources to bring the Molokai Ranch assets back to their full potential. To protect the legacy of Molokai Ranch,” the email continued, “we prefer not to break up the assets by disposing of them on an individual basis. GL believes that, by partnering with Sotheby’s, it will be able to identify a new owner with a new vision for Molokai Ranch. The residents of Molokai can only benefit from such a new owner.”
A viable business
With all of this in mind, a potential buyer might pause before plunking down the requisite US$260 million. What guarantees, after all, that they can avoid what happened to GL? “Let me point out that the Kaluakoi Hotel was a viable, functioning hotel with a golf course, and the lodge was a viable business, too,” said Arakawa. “There’s potential to have business there, and the community backed some of that. There’s not guaranteed opposition.”
Arakawa wouldn’t expand as to how community input might affect things, other than to note that “there could be compromises established that allow for reasonable economic benefits from the properties.”
As an example, he pointed to an attempt by GL to build a wind farm: “The residents opposed it, the company tried to force it, and they got shot down,” he said. “But now there’s another company [on the island] that’s building a photovoltaic system that’s much more friendly to the community, and now we’re going to be the first island in the US that’s powered by 100 per cent sustainable energy.”
Arakawa pointed to nearby Lanai Island as a model: Some 98 per cent of it was bought by Oracle founder Larry Ellison for a reported US$300 million in 2012. “At first there was opposition to him, too,” Arakawa said. “But once people started to understand what he was going to do – he made jobs [for residents] and isn’t over-developing, but is fixing the [community] gymnasium and put in basketball courts – well, now he has a large group that supports him.”
Scott Carvill, the Sotheby’s broker who listed the property, is also hoping a private, civic-minded billionaire will buy the property. “The most obvious target is an ultra-high-net-worth individual who sees this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “They wouldn’t necessarily [buy it] for its [return on investment] as much as something to hold in the family, or land-manage, or to keep through a conservation-type approach.” (More than 4,000 acres of the ranch are already deeded as forested conservation lands.)
Despite that the US$260 million price tag makes the ranch one of the most expensive listings anywhere, ever, Carvill said that its size, location, and potential makes its price tag relatively reasonable.
“We’ve had internal valuation and compared it to other legacy buys,” he said. “Our price is roughly US$4,000 an acre; Lanai [Ellison’s island] sold for just under that; Bixby Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., sold for US$5,440 an acre. So sure, if you’re looking at a ranch in the middle of Oklahoma, the price is expensive, but prime land in a prime coastal area sells for this amount.”
The property has been on the market for just over a week, and in that time, “we’ve had interest at an amazing rate,” Carvill said. “I can barely keep up with the phone calls.”
While declining to name just how many people had expressed interest, Carvill said that they had “a number” of people committed enough to buy the property that they’ve passed through the first phase of due diligence; the next step for each is to put down a refundable deposit of US$4 million to begin negotiations.
Carvill didn’t flinch at mention of the protests that plagued the ranch’s current owners. “I met with community leaders there on the ground, and I was, like: ‘What’s your wish list for a buyer?’ he said.
“They were very realistic. They told me they want a buyer to come in, appreciate the community, and maybe participate in some endeavours with cultural and Hawaiian heritage.”
“I’m hoping,” said Cooke, “that they find a buyer similar to my family: someone to put the attention and care and love into this island that we did.”