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Reinventing Hawaii’s Round Top

For decades, Puu Ualakaa State Wayside was cared for by one man. Now, its management is changing hands, to a commercial tour company. What the shift means for one of Oahu’s most scenic parks.


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The house retains most of the architectural details originally designed by Hart Wood.

Photos: David Croxford

The end of the Ralston era at Nutridge started with an evening run by Curt Cottrell, the assistant administrator for the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks. “I go to the state park frequently and run up Tantalus to look at the view. As I’m running by, I’m always looking at the house, thinking, this is a jewel and nobody knows about it.” Cottrell kept thinking about improving public access and ways to maximize revenue from the unique property for the state parks. “At $604 a month, we’re not doing the site justice.”

Revenue maximization was top-of-mind for Cottrell because the state parks division is stretched thin, with more parks to manage and less than half of the previous budget to do it. In 1998, the state Legislature provided $8 million a year in operating funds while today’s budget has shrunk to a little more than $3 million. “We’re so short on operating funds, we’re looking for coins under the couch to buy dinner,” Cottrell says.

So the time had come for change at Round Top. “It was an equitable relationship for the public to have Rick there, because he saved the house from collapse and preserved a unique, historic structure,” says Cottrell. He credits Ralston for both his work and paying to fix up the property. “But for the past decade, he hasn’t put in any significant improvements,” Cottrell says, which made him look for other options for the property.

An appraisal firm hired to estimate Nutridge’s market value came up with  $4,700 per month—more than $55,000 a year. Cottrell sent Ralston the new terms, and Ralston declined to pay what would have been more than eight times his previous rent.

The state opted to remain on a monthly revocable lease, a fairly common arrangement for the state parks department. The state parks division charges tourists and buses for parking at spots that include Pali Lookout, Iao Valley, Hapuna Beach and Akaka Falls to earn the division about $1 million annually.

“We wanted to figure out a way to repurpose the house for public access but in a managed way so we could protect it, while also generating more income,” Cottrell says.

The winning bidder for the new lease, Discover Hawaii Tours, will pay a minimum of $4,700 each month or a percentage of growth—whichever is higher.

Leo Malagon, CEO of Discover Hawaii Tours, appreciates the house’s “incredible location. It’s very historic. A lot of mana. What we would like to do with it is try to protect it and preserve it, because conservation is the key.”

Some of his ideas so far include sunrise and sunset tours, and as a venue for kanikapila. “The idea is to try to bring in the singers and musicians from the Waimānalo and Papakolea communities where the culture can be preserved and shared,” Malagon said.

The new plan for the Nutridge estate includes renting it out as a wedding location.

The big hope for Discover Hawaii Tours is that it succeeds as a wedding or corporate retreat venue. The tour company has 24-hour access, seven days a week. Malagon seems to be working out a lot of ideas, such as possibly installing tables throughout the house and opening it up as a breakfast or brunch spot served by a food truck (as the residential kitchen isn’t equipped to handle that), and opening it up once each month for a nominal fee to civic and nonprofit groups who want to meet or hold parties there. “It was not the state’s intention to make it open and have everybody come in. There’s no control,” Malagon says.

Cottrell says they “have a lot of flexibility. They have a $4,700-a-month nut, and they seem confident they’ll hit that easily.”

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Honolulu Magazine July 2019
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