Lipoa Point sale official

WAILUKU – Maui Land & Pineapple Co. retirees were able to breathe a sigh of relief Thursday after the state solidified its purchase of Lipoa Point for $19.5 million, which the company must use to fund pension plans for its former workers.

“I’m very excited. We feel confident now that we have our pensions,” said Ruby Yoshisato, who worked for the pineapple company for 55 years, after government officials signed a proclamation Thursday morning at the ILWU Local 142 Maui Division building in Wailuku. “We were worried before that we wouldn’t get (anything).”

Shirley Young, who worked for ML&P for 44 years before she retired, said Thursday’s official proclamation was “wonderful.” She is looking forward to spending her retirement “keeping busy with senior programs.”

“Now, every day is Sunday,” she said with a laugh.

With the funds ML&P will receive from the state for selling about 280 acres of former agricultural land at Lipoa Point, more than 1,600 retired workers will now have “the financial security that they richly deserve after dedicating their lives for so many years,” said ML&P Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Warren Haruki.

Haruki described the sale as a “win-win” for both the company, which has struggled the last decade to stay on top of its finances, and the state, which will now be able to keep Lipoa Point and Honolua Bay preserved in perpetuity.

At the end of June, the company reportedly owed $20.2 million in unfunded pension liabilities, according to a second-quarter corporate report filed in August. Pension funding ratios fluctuate with investment earnings and the stock market, and ML&P’s retirement liabilities have been ticking downward in the last couple of years, according to company filings.

The $19.5 million the company will receive from the state will be enough to fund most if not all of the retirees’ pensions, company officials said Thursday.

“About five to six years ago, MLP’s financial situation was quite challenging,” Haruki said. “We had experienced a recession and a downturn in the real estate market just as we had begun marketing the new Kapalua Bay Residences project.”

Haruki said the company “changed its business model” and shut down its pineapple operations in 2009. However, the company’s pension plan “remained severely underfunded.”

To offset some of the debt, the company submitted conceptual plans for a golf course and 40 luxury homes at Lipoa Point in 2007, according to the Save Honolua Coalition website, a group that formed to oppose the development.

“I found out there was a huge massive plan for the (Lipoa Point) area, they were going to build a gated community and private golf course,” said Council Member Elle Cochran, who founded the group in 2007 as a private citizen three years before she was elected to office. “When I realized the big master plan, I didn’t agree, and I needed to educate the community.”

Community, county and state representatives began looking at ways to acquire Lipoa Point to preserve the area in perpetuity. ML&P withdrew the proposed development in 2008 but still needed to find a way to fund its pension debts; otherwise, 7,000 acres of West Maui land that had been put up as security would have been surrendered to the Pension Benefits Guaranty Corp.

West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey, who grew up in Lahaina, introduced a bill that was signed into law last year that directs the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, in consultation with the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, to acquire Lipoa Point. Proceeds of the sale are to benefit the pension plan of ML&P retirees, the law states. Gov. Neil Abercrombie released $19.5 million for the purchase of the property in June.

“As author of HB 2141, it is a proud day to see the fruition of the dreams of many like myself who surfed, dove and played in Honolua to see it preserved for all generations,” McKelvey said.

The next step would be to come up with a funding mechanism to manage the property in perpetuity, he said. The lawmaker said he intends to look at increasing the conveyance tax for large corporations that sell land to provide funding for land management efforts at Lipoa Point.

State Department of Land and Natural Resources Deputy Director Jesse Souki, a Maui native, assured residents Thursday that the department would work with the community to “sustainably manage the area to ensure the cultural, recreational and historic resources are preserved in perpetuity for the people of Hawaii.”

Acting Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who signed the proclamation Thursday on behalf of the governor, touted Lipoa Point as “one of the most iconic landmarks in Hawaii.” The area provides “breathtaking views of the rugged West Maui coastline”; is home to a rich marine conservation district that draws snorkelers from all over the world; is a popular surf spot; and is from where Hawaii’s voyaging canoe Hokule’a launched its maiden voyage in 1976, Tsutsui said.

“Lipoa Point’s acquisition by the state removes the threat of development, preserving the land in perpetuity for generations to come and makes way for creation of a management plan,” Tsutsui said.

He dubbed Oct. 9, 2014, as Lipoa Point Day in Hawaii.

For Council Member Mike Victorino, who has advocated for the preservation of Lipoa Point since 2007, the day marked the culmination of a collaborative effort between the county and the state.

“This wasn’t to pay ML&P’s debt. . . . This is so future generations will have a place to use, and all our (ML&P) retirees and future retirees – there are a few left – are going to be able to have their retirement,” Victorino said.

“We’ve taken care of the past and protected the future,” he said.

The parcel of land is located north of Kapalua and stretches from Honolua Bay to Honokohau Bay.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.