Build it (homes, stores and restaurants) and they (technology companies) will come.
That’s the premise of a new plan to spur growth at the roughly 20-year-old Maui Research and Technology Park in Kihei. So far the park has largely failed to live up to community leaders’ ambitious original goal of diversifying the island’s economy.
New owners are proposing to add housing and retail space in hopes of encouraging tech companies to move into the park, which is only about 10 percent occupied.
However, some residents question how much of the new plan is focused on housing versus tech park growth, and whether such commercial and residential development is appropriate for the property still largely zoned for agriculture.
A partnership that acquired most of the underdeveloped park three years ago wants to recast the complex as a mixed-use tech community modeled after modern research park development trends on the mainland. The new plan is proposed by Maui R&T Partners LLC, a firm managed by Stephen Goodfellow of major Maui construction firm Goodfellow Bros., and Michael Rosenfeld of California development firm Woodridge Capital.
Rosenfeld is a Los Angeles-based developer whose work includes large-scale real estate projects in Canada, on the mainland and in Hawaii over the past 20 years. Rosenfeld’s projects include the planned 1,400-home community on Maui called Honuaula. He also was part of the Waiakoa Ranch agricultural home subdivision plan for Upcountry Maui that fell into foreclosure last year.
Goodfellow Bros. also has been involved in Honuaula and Waiakoa Ranch.
R&T Partners recently petitioned the state Land Use Commission to reclassify 253 acres from agricultural to urban use for its new plan. The 253 acres border about 150 acres previously urbanized for the tech park.
In all, 432 acres are proposed for the re-envisioned tech park. Of that, 100 acres would be for housing, including some homes that would front the Elleair Maui Golf Club. A 58-acre mixed-use village center would contain homes, offices, retail and a park, some of it also with golf course views. Another 217 acres would be for "knowledge industry" expansion.
Steve Perkins, development project coordinator for Goodfellow Bros., said the revised master plan for the tech park is still in too early a stage to have specific numbers for homes or tech company space. "We’re still kind of homing in on the figures," he said, adding that the focus of the project will be research and technology.
Dick Mayer, a retired economics professor at Maui Community College who was involved in the original vision for the tech park, is skeptical about how homes will spur growth of the tech park.
"It’s very vague as to what they’re asking for," he said about the plan.
The rough site plan was included in an environmental impact statement preparation notice that R&T Partners recently filed with the state. More details, including the number of homes, are expected to be included in a draft environmental impact statement the developer is preparing.
In its land-use petition, R&T Partners said it has updated the park’s long-range plan to incorporate tech park industry best practices that include "supporting" land uses such as employee housing and civic and commercial services that would help spur growth at the park, which presently employs about 400 people.
"A new approach is necessary if the park is to achieve the community’s economic development goals," the developer said in its petition. "The resulting critical mass of companies will contribute to sound economic development of the island."
R&T Partners said growth of the tech park over the last two decades has been largely stunted by a restrictive set of land uses, lot sizes that are too big for many potential tenants and lack of a cohesive development vision.
Originally, the tech park was envisioned by a group of community leaders as a way to help diversify Maui’s economy beyond tourism and the declining sugar and pineapple industries — particularly toward astronomy, defense and renewable energy fields.
The nonprofit Maui Economic Development Board, an organization formed by a group of community leaders in 1982 with a goal of strengthening the local economy, led the effort to develop the tech park. The organization obtained Land Use Commission approval in 1985 to urbanize 150 acres of land, owned by Haleakala Ranch Co. and used for cattle grazing, for an initial phase. A second 150-acre phase was forecast to be completed within 15 years. Another 132 acres got added to the park plan later but not approved for development by the LUC.
The two original phases had a low-density design. The concept for each phase featured 25 lots ranging from two to 10 acres with an extensively landscaped campuslike setting. Qualifying tenants, under LUC conditions, were supposed to be in technology-intensive emerging industries.
Occupancy at the park, however, failed to take off as expected. Presently, 19 tenants occupy five buildings that represent about 10 percent of the park’s capacity.
Among the tenants are technology firms and government research entities, including Air Force Research Laboratory Det 15, Boeing, Maui High Performance Computing Center, Oceanit, Pacific Defense Solutions, Textron and the Research Corp. of the University of Hawaii.
The state’s High Technology Development Corp. also operates a business incubation center at the park.
But other tenants aren’t so tech-oriented, including a dentist, a wedding photography business, a management consulting firm, a hotel booking company and corporate offices for Goodfellow Bros.
Stifled growth at the park contributed to the Maui Economic Development Board withdrawing as managing partner of the park about 10 years ago, and passing up an option to buy the park land from Haleakala Ranch.
R&T Partners bought about 231 acres of the park site in 2007 for about $21.4 million, according to property records. Haleakala Ranch owns 124 acres. The balance is owned by others including park tenants.
Jeanne Unemori Skog, president and chief executive of the Maui Economic Development Board, which occupies space at the park, said the nonprofit supports the effort to remake the park with supporting land uses including housing.
"Times have changed," she said. "There is a huge need for housing that supports the work force in the park."