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Maui’s future as a destination was shaped by Elmer Cravalho

Maui has a habit of landing on Top 10 lists of the “best island in the world” and “best places to visit,” but the Valley Isle’s enviable position in Hawaii’s tourism portfolio didn’t come by luck or chance.

It came from the foresight of visionary leaders like Maui’s first mayor, Elmer F. Cravalho, who died Monday at Roselani Place in Kahului after a long illness. He was 90.

One can only imagine what Cravalho thought as today’s travel writers laud Maui’s diversity – its broad, sandy beaches; Haleakala Crater; the road to Hana; Upcountry cowboy country; fine-dining and luxurious resorts in South and West Maui. It’s a destination vacation for the well-heeled, not for the herds of tourists who flock to high-rise Waikiki to fight traffic and compete for space on the crowded beaches.

Back in the decades following Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, leaders like Cravalho and his contemporaries – now mostly gone – set the foundation for Maui’s success. Their work came as the Neighbor Islands struggled economically and as technical improvements in overseas air travel ushered in 747 jumbo jets to ferry hundreds of visitors, inexpensively and quickly, across the Pacific.

Cravalho brokered the Central Maui Joint Venture, which pumped freshwater from the Iao aquifer in Central Maui and channeled it to arid South Maui, making possible resort-scale development in Kihei, Wailea and Makena. And, it was Cravalho who was instrumental in planning to situate resorts – and concentrating tourism – in Wailea, Kaanapali and Kapalua. And, it was Cravalho who teamed up with tourism marketing genius Frank Blackwell to set up Maui’s own visitors bureau and to market Maui separately as a high-end visitor destination.

Former Mayor Charmaine Tavares grew up knowing Cravalho through his friendship with her late father, Hannibal Tavares, who succeeded Cravalho as mayor and served as the county’s chief executive from 1979 to 1990.

Tavares said Cravalho and her father would meet often and discuss issues, including the development of Maui.

Before tourism took off as an economic engine on Maui, agriculture was the dominant source of jobs and income for the island, she said. Island leaders watched as Maui experienced a “brain drain” with the best and brightest young people choosing to move away to pursue careers.

Tavares said there was a “conscious effort” to make tourism an economic engine for the island and to “designate places it would occur.”

And, she said, island leaders, including Cravalho, wanted “high-end” visitors.

“They didn’t want volume like Honolulu,” she said. “That puts terrific strain on infrastructure. . . . In retrospect, it was a wonderful idea. We don’t have motels and hotels all over the island.

“The idea was to make Maui special,” Tavares said. “It already has wonderful, natural beauty. It was a nice fit to go for the high-end visitors. The numbers impact was not as great.”

Waikiki, with its high concentration of small hotels, was the model of what Maui leaders did not want the Valley Isle to become, she said. “They agreed they did not want Maui to have that kind of tourism.”

Tavares said she wasn’t exactly sure how all the pieces came into place, but “Elmer was very forceful about what he saw as the future of tourism.”

“He and dad bounced things around a lot,” she said.

Howard Nakamura, planning director in the later part of Cravalho’s service as mayor and the early years of Hannibal Tavares’, said last week that there’s no question that Cravalho was instrumental in the development of Maui tourism and the island overall, including affordable housing projects.

Nakamura said Cravalho worked closely with Blackwell to develop a tourism marketing plan for Maui.

That plan included creation of the Maui County Visitors Association, separate from tourism marketing focused on Oahu, and the idea of seeking luxury visitors with deeper pockets.

According to “Developing a Dream Destination,” a study of Hawaii tourism and policy written by economics professor James Mak in 2008, Cravalho – “Maui’s charismatic and undisputed boss” – was “the central figure in guiding much of the county’s political and economic affairs until he resigned in June 1979.”

He quoted tourism writer Bryan Farrell as considering Cravalho to have been “the single most important person in Maui tourism development.”

Again, with Mak quoting Farrell, Mak said that “cautious developmental growth and stringent controls (were) always part of Cravalho’s stated policy.”

“By withholding land-use approvals and the delivery of county services, Cravalho could make it very difficult for development projects he didn’t like to go forward,” Mak wrote. “Thus, one wonders whether he fully approved of the astonishing pace of tourism growth that occurred in Maui County during the 1970s. Transparently, the desire for economic growth pulled by the new tourism engine trumped other county goals. Of course, a strong economy was imperative for Maui County to escape the tight fiscal control of the state Legislature and enable it to exercise ‘home rule.’ In 1980, the newly elected Mayor Hannibal Tavares reflected that ‘Maui has grown too fast. What we need now is quality growth.’ ”

Nakamura credited Cravalho with leading development of the Central Maui source development agreement, finalized in 1975, in which Wailea Development Co., Seibu, Alexander & Baldwin and Hawaiiana Investment Co. worked together to drill wells to tap the Iao aquifer in Central Maui and have that water pumped and channeled to South Maui. The water yield was thought to have been 36 million gallons per day, but it was later recalculated to 20 million gallons per day.

Former longtime Maui Board of Water Supply Chairman David “Buddy” Nobriga recalled Friday that A&B first approached Cravalho about developing Central Maui for resort development in South Maui. He said Cravalho got behind the idea and passed development of the 24-inch waterline to the semiautonomous water board.

The joint venture was important as a way to “pay for the damn thing,” he said.

Nakamura said Cravalho was clear about what he wanted, and “he was very persuasive.”

Cravalho was skilled at making the argument that developers had a shared, “mutual interest” in profiting from their projects while also providing community benefits.

Tavares said the development of Keopuolani Park in Central Maui stemmed from land provided by A&B during the Cravalho era in a deal for hotel development in Wailea. A&B’s parkland donation was not purely out of a desire to support the community, she said.

Former Maui County Corporation Counsel Glenn Kosaka worked under both Cravalho and Hannibal Tavares and found that Tavares was more hands off.

“He let us do what we thought we had to do,” he said early last week. Whereas, Cravalho “wanted things his way.”

“He didn’t always get his way,” which left him unhappy, Kosaka said. But Cravalho would accept it and back off when county lawyers would tell him a position was not legally defensible.

“People didn’t think that happened, but it did,” he said.

Cravalho was “big on process and procedure,” Kosaka said. “The procedure had to be correct. . . . He didn’t want to mess with legal people. He would go all the way to the border (of something legal) and not go over the line.”

“He never crossed the line,” he said.

Cravalho had a number of advantages, Kosaka said.

The mayor was the first person in the county building in the morning, with someone bringing him breakfast there. And, he was the “smartest guy in the room.”

“He also had the most information,” Kosaka said.

He said he would attribute “a lot if not all” of Maui’s early tourism development policy to Cravalho.

“He was very farsighted,” Kosaka said.

Cravalho knew Maui needed another source of revenue, aside from sugar and pineapple plantations, he said.

Setting aside West and South Maui for tourism was a sacrifice, he said, because those were and are “the most attractive” areas of the island.

But Cravalho made sure residents could enjoy the shoreline as well and insisted that public beach access be provided from shoreline developers, he said.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.