Community Discusses Purchase of Molokai Ranch
By Jack Kiyonaga, Community Reporter
As Molokai residents are well aware, Molokai Ranch has been for sale since 2017. For $260,000,000, a buyer would become the owner of over 55,000 acres of land with infrastructure like water lines, roads and housing — equating to about a third of the island.
Tech moguls have a bad habit of snatching up land in Hawaii. Over the past few years, Mark Zuckerberg has bought 1,500 acres of Kauai. Larry Ellison famously purchased 90,000 acres, or 98 percent, of Lanai for $300,000,000. A massive land grab by an outside investor is what the Molokai community is seeking to avoid.
The lands, currently owned and operated by Molokai Properties Limited, whose parent company is Hong Kong-based investment firm Guoco Group, have repeatedly changed hands and operations over the last century and a half. From the royal Hawaiian line, to the Bishop and Cooke families, to foreign based investment firms, from dryland forest to pineapple plantation and ranch lands to abandoned resort. That’s where Molokai Heritage Trust comes in.
Formed as a “special purpose vehicle to acquire and manage ranch lands,” the Molokai Heritage Trust is a nonprofit led by Molokai residents and currently facilitated by Sust’ainable Molokai. As such, Sust’ainable Molokai’s team has been gathering feedback from the Molokai community for the past year on how best to proceed.
Chris O’Brien, director of financial development for Sust’ainable Molokai and part of the Molokai Heritage Trust project team, stressed that “this is not Sust’ainable Molokai buying the ranch. This is Sust’ainable Molokai facilitating the community process for ownership.”
Sust’ainable Molokai started this community conversation because it already had a genealogy of similar projects on Molokai. Sust’ainable Molokai’s work with sea level rise and clean energy positioned them as “best suited to help facilitate this third community planning process,” explained O’Brien.
The Molokai Heritage Trust project team from Sust’ainable Molokai is led by project coordinator Momi Afelin and Sust’ainable Molokai Executive Director Tehani Kaalekahi working together with other Molokai groups and residents.
So far, Molokai residents have had the chance to voice their opinions and concerns at virtual community and subcommittee meetings led by Sust’ainable Molokai. The nonprofit has facilitated 15 meetings to date, led door-to-door efforts and held pop-up events to help inform residents. These meetings are critical in determining what exactly the community wants to do.
“The details [of the plan] will come from the community,” explained Kaalekahi.
Community ownership of Molokai Ranch would be community driven and could take many forms. In terms of actually buying the Ranch, the Sust’ainable Molokai project team is looking at diverse sources of capital including grants, loans, and investors to acquire the land. Specifically, they are looking at what kinds of investment, both public and commercial, are acceptable for Molokai people.
O’Brien explained that while there is a lot of money available for these kinds of investments, the project team is being selective in potential sources of funding, which may include grants, loans and government sources.
Critical to this financial process is “making sure that we have the organizational structure developed” to properly handle the investment, explained O’Brien.
He also stressed the financial structure and founding board for Molokai Heritage Trust needs to reflect the Molokai community in mindset and makeup.
Likewise, the ranch lands will be used in accordance with community goals.
While the Sust’ainable Molokai project team can’t give information on “specific land use” they are focusing on asking the community what it thinks best, according to O’Brien.
Kaalekahi explained that the ranch purchase is crucial in achieving the goal of “aina momona.”
These lands will give the Molokai community the opportunity to become realistically sustainable, she said.
However, community members will also need to address concerns over the viability of the land. One ecological designer at the most recent community meeting described the land as “in the midst of or already having ecological collapse.”
Addressing these possible ecological issues is part of answering the question of “how do we move forward,” explained O’Brien.
Conservation is a key area of focus. Not only is conservation and reforestation necessary for repairing the land, but it offers unique economic opportunity as well.
One hope is to create “a new economy for Molokai around conservation,” said O’Brien.
And although much work remains to be done, Kaalekahi urged residents to be patient and trust the process.
While acknowledging concerns over “why is it taking so long” and assertions that “all you guys do is talk, talk, talk,” she assured that “this process is intentional.”
The goal is to take the time to do this process right, so that Molokai won’t “have to do this again,” said Kaalekahi.
Ultimately, buying the land is not the last step of a process, but rather would inaugurate a new chapter in Molokai’s history. Perhaps the most realistic “opportunity for all of Molokai,” according to Kaalekahi, the purchase of the Ranch exists currently as a community discussion over the relationship between land and people and their future.
Molokai residents can find out more about Molokai Heritage Trust, future community meetings and watch past meetings at molokaiheritagetrust.org/.