Turtle Bay, which is owned by Blackstone and managed by Benchmark Resorts & Hotels, is gearing up for its plan to add about 750 units — a lengthy build-out that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and increase the workforce to 1,100 from 650.
It’s also expanded its push to invest in the surrounding community through the Turtle Bay Foundation, which was created in 2012 with the intent to give tourism proceeds back to the community, a step that has helped to maintain the property’s hard-won peace.
Turtle Bay’s former owners received approval in 1986 to build 3,500 additional units, including five new hotel sites, but community resistance stopped the development from moving forward.
A smaller plan, first agreed to during Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s administration, is now moving forward. That agreement was finalized in 2015 when the state Board of Land and Natural Resources agreed to spend $45 million to pay Turtle Bay Resort for some of its development rights. The deal preserved nearly 79 percent of open lands owned by Turtle Bay Resort, roughly 665 acres of undeveloped property from Kawela Bay to Kahuku Point, including four miles of coastline and eight miles of trails. But it allowed Turtle Bay to retain about 150 acres fronting the ocean on either side of the resort’s existing hotel for development of two additional hotels with a combined 625 rooms and 100 homes.
Blackstone recently acquired Turtle Bay Resort for roughly $330 million. It’s the same company that also acquired the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, this year.
Jerry Gibson, who was appointed vice president and managing director for Turtle Bay Resort in February, said the resort anticipates by year’s end completing the design portion for the first phase of the build-out, which is anticipated to start in May and cost $52 million. This phase will refurbish the outside of the hotel and landscape the surrounding grounds and golf course. It is expected to create jobs for 300 to 400 construction workers.
Phases 2 and 3, which don’t have a trigger date yet, are expected to add new accommodations ranging from condominium hotels, private residences and potentially a small hotel tower. It also might add 25 temporary units like travel trailers and yurts to create a “glamping,” or glamorous camping, area past the stables.
“We really want to highlight the natural setting,” he said. “We haven’t decided on the exact locations or mix of units yet, but we plan to be really creative.”
A nearly 40-year veteran of the hospitality industry, Gibson is no stranger to development or overcoming community resistance. He successfully completed many projects as area vice president for Hilton Hawaii, overseeing the operations of Hilton-managed properties throughout the Hawaiian Islands, including two of Hilton’s largest properties, Hilton Hawaiian Village and Hilton Waikoloa Village.
Gibson said the smaller development plan that is now moving forward garnered local support because of the resort’s considerable investment in the surrounding community. It also didn’t hurt that the North Shore region needs more good-paying jobs, and at 650 employees and counting, Turtle Bay Resort is the region’s largest employer.
“At one time not all people were amicable to doing that, but as they know, it’s hard to find housing and that kind of thing here without the job increases,” Gibson said. “The trickle-down economic impact of the resort on our community is substantial. We touch at least 2,000 people’s lives, from our employees to their aunts and uncles and other family members to our suppliers, vendors and complementary businesses.”
Gibson has high hopes for Phase 2 and 3 development but said that small-scale expansion is still down the road. For now the hotel’s other investment focus is shoring up the community with its Turtle Bay Foundation, which since its inception has contributed about $512,000 to the community.
“It will be a record collection this year. We’ve already collected about $90,000,” Gibson said. “The main ways that we collect are through our golf tournament, and many of our guests, especially return guests, will contribute a dollar for every day of their stay.”
Gibson said the resort is focused on growing the foundation, which provides college scholarships to North Shore residents and funds about 73 local organizations.
“We’ll set our annual goals higher every year because we want to top $1 million in total contributions,” Gibson said. “The community has given the hotel so many gifts. We wanted to give back.”
Koolauloa resident KC Connors said she doesn’t think Turtle Bay’s concessions and the governmental conservation efforts went far enough.
“When people celebrated, I don’t think most of them realized that there would still be more than 700 units coming. I think this will negatively impact traffic and the environment, and for what? Low-paying tourism jobs for an old-fashioned industry,” Connors said. “I would have liked to have seen Turtle Bay’s natural areas preserved by eminent domain. If we need more jobs, I would have liked to see greater investment in higher-paying technology jobs.”
Grateful for support
Still, the resort is not without its cheerleaders. Suzannah Kennedy, vice president of Friends of Sunset Beach, said she is thankful to Turtle Bay for the funds that it gives to support an art education program at Sunset Beach Elementary School that extends into the community.
“In the last three years, Turtle Bay has given us $8,500,” she said. “It feels great to have someone else in the community that has your back. I think that’s made the perception of Turtle Bay vastly different than it once was. The grants and scholarships that they give out have made a big difference.”
Kennedy said if a Turtle Bay expansion had been on the table four years ago, “people would have been losing their minds. But I think people trust Turtle Bay now. I’d almost forgotten that Turtle Bay expansion was ever a thing.”
A‘ja-Faith Greene, who grew up in Hauula, said a Turtle Bay scholarship is helping her attend the University of Hawaii at Manoa where she is pursuing a degree in global environmental science. She’s thankful to the resort for the support that it has given her and for its commitment to working with the community to downsize its original master plan.
“I was raised in the community with ‘Keep the Country Country,’ when a lot of people felt this development would have a negative impact on the aina. I remember there were signs about stopping the expansion of Turtle Bay. Having them work with the community and agree to downsize their plan was wonderful,” Greene said.