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  From The Garden Island April 22, 2004

Archaeology study underway at Coco Palms Resort grounds
The Garden Island

By PHIL HAYWORTH - TGI Business Editor

Cultural-survey experts from O'ahu and Kaua'i have been scouring the Coco Palms Resort property in Wailua over the last month, looking for ancient-Hawaiian burial sites, trails and anecdotal information to include in a cultural impact statement (CIS).

But so far, the archeologists have come up empty in the search for artifacts.

"We haven't found any burials," said David Shideler, supervising archeologist with O'ahu-based Cultural Surveys Hawaii, Inc. "It's really kind of disappointing."

The area along and around the Wailua River was once a busy gathering place for ancient Hawaiians, and became the ancestral home of Kaua'i's ali'i (royalty) in the 13th century.

Indeed, the area encompassing the Coco Palms Resort was the home of Kaua'i's last reigning queen, Queen Debora Kapule, a wife of King Kaumuali'i, in the mid-1800s.

Hence, the area should have produced many more artifacts than have been discovered, Shideler said.

"The area has seen a great deal of transformation over its history, including rice development by the Japanese, a coconut plantation and, of course, the Coco Palms Hotel," Shideler said.

Cultural-survey experts will be in the area next week, meeting with local residents and kumu (teachers), and the CIS should be completed within two months, Shideler said.

Meanwhile, the completion of the CIS is the first sure sign that the long-awaited renovation and eventual reopening of the venerable property is moving forward.

Back in March 2000, members of the Kaua'i Planning Commission approved zoning permits for redevelopment of the area, but it was subject to the preservation of archaeological features and human burials on the grounds.

Soon, financing and other troubles foiled deals for various parties interested in purchasing and renovating the property. A CIS never even got off the ground.

Then, as late as early 2003, state Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua'i-Ni'ihau, introduced a bill that would have allowed state officials to condemn the land through eminent domain and make it a public cultural park. But the bill never got life in the legislative session.

Then, earlier this year, real estate developer and Princeville resident Richard Weiser announced that he was negotiating the purchase of the property from present-owner Wailua Associates.

But as of mid-March, no such sale had closed, and the purchase amount remains undisclosed.

However, Weiser said in January this year that the purchase price and construction costs together could amount to $120 million.

Weiser plans to convert the original 396 hotel rooms into 201 time-share units and 172 hotel suites, which would be run by a major hotel operator.

He could not be reached for comment yesterday, but in January Weiser said that the hotel and property could be open for business sometime in 2006.

The Coco Palms was shuttered in 1992 after Hurricane 'Iniki wreaked havoc on the area.

Today, the once-grand resort property stands vacant and forlorn, a shabby ghost of its once-glorious Polynesian splendor as designed in the 1950s by the late hotelier and Coco Palms host Grace Guslander.

Yet the essential beauty of the area's lagoons and bungalows continue to draw admirers, and are still used as the backdrop for weddings staged by long-time Kaua'i singer and guitarist Larry Rivera and his family.

In the past, the grounds were the site for Elvis Presley's floating wedding scene in the 1961 film "Blue Hawaii."

Today, visitors may still be wed during a reenactment of that scene on the resort's lagoons.

Business Editor Phil Hayworth may be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or mail to: phayworth@pulitzer.net

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