Plea from a damaged paradise: 'Please, please, come to Maui'

Alberta-born entrepreneur Steve Houle says his adopted Hawaiian home wants visitors back: ‘We piled economic pain on top of the fire pain’

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This is a conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities.

Maui, Hawaii — This sunny island has been a destination for Canadian sun-seekers since the 1970s when Wardair, an Edmonton-based charter, started filling their 747s with aloha-bound tourists. Flight attendants served steaks on Royal Doulton china and the jumbos’ upper decks were transformed into cocktail bars where Mai Tais were generously poured from take-off to landing.

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But in the aftermath of the August fires that levelled Lahaina and left about 100 people dead, are Hawaiians still happy to see friendly Canadians?

To find out, I went to see Steve Houle, an entrepreneur from the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert, who now lives here with his family.

“Nobody moves to Maui to get rich or richer because it’s a very difficult place to do business compared to other jurisdictions,” Steve assures me when we meet. “We moved here because it’s paradise.”

When his two sons were in eighth and tenth grades, the family relocated to Kihei, a surf town on the southwest side of Maui. “We love Canada,” he says, “but we just wanted to make a change, challenge ourselves and our boys.” Steve bought a home in Kihei in 2010; then, the market was low and the Canadian dollar was high.

Tanned and fit — dressed in a button-down, short-sleeved shirt in a palm print, shorts and white runners — Steve, 53, appears fairly laid-back. But after I’m seated across the desk from him at his office in Kihei, it doesn’t take long to realize that under the chill Hawaiian vibe, hot ambition pulses through this guy’s veins. Other than his laptop and a two-foot-high R2D2 robot (he later admits to having an R2D2 ringtone on his phone), there are no personal items on display in his office.

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By his own admission, he’s a mergers and acquisitions guy; in Canada, he’s bought and consolidated assets in industries as diverse as propane and bottled water. In 2017, Steve bought the Coldwell Banker franchise in Maui — his beach-head in the Hawaiian real estate sector — and has since expanded into Kauai, the Big Island, and most recently, Oahu. To complement that business, Steve acquired a property management company (long-term leases and short-term vacation rentals); built out a title and escrow company; and, this August, mere days before the deadly Lahaina fires, brought a commercial real estate arm into his corporate empire.

“We’re the first company that has done that in Hawaii,” Steve explains, “where we have the entire ecosystem in house — mortgage, escrow, property management and the brokerage itself. It’s been done on the mainland, but nobody ever did it on Hawaii.”

Steve’s just opened an office on Oahu — there, he’ll be competing with a well-established corporate-owned Coldwell Banker franchise. How, as a franchisee, do you share the market in a place like Oahu? “We’re in that discussion right now,” he chuckles, “creating some rules of engagement.”  A few minutes later, he rubs his chin and ponders, “Maybe one day, they’ll just sell it (the Oahu franchise) to me.” As I’m learning, it’s not a stretch. In 2021, Steve and a partner bought the Canadian franchise.

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But what happens now to all those aspirations, with a different mood settling into Maui and big decisions being explored about the future, not only of Lahaina, but of tourism in general? I’m even hearing grumbling on the island about predatory developers trying to buy up land in Lahaina.

“I did get a call from a California VC (venture capitalist) the day after the fire, asking if they could deploy $100 million in land purchases,” Steve reflects, his voice quiet but his fists taut. “And then I hung up the phone.”

It will be years — maybe as long as a decade — for Lahaina to be rebuilt, Steve predicts. He only made his first trip to the West Side (the northwest region of the island where Lahaina is located) since the fires last week. “I certainly didn’t stop. I didn’t take selfies.”

“At the end of the day, there are some voices on Maui who want people to stay away,” Steve reports. He continues, with a sigh and a furrowed brow, “They are very few and far between, but they are loud.” I feel his weariness. Most of the locals Steve knows want tourists to keep coming because they want jobs. “What’s very sad about Maui right now,” he says, “we piled economic pain on top of the fire pain. Thousands of people got laid off.

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“I went to an Edmonton Oilers game and ran into a friend and he comes twice a year with his family and he said, ‘We’re not coming this year.’ And I said, please, please, come to Maui. The people need you to come to Maui.”

Even prior to the COVID pandemic, there was talk of tourists loving the island too much. “The island has a natural constraint in terms of capacity,” Steve replies. “It has only so many hotels and permitted vacation rentals. What it needs is a bit more long-term housing for local families and workers.” 

Hawaii seems to think it’s just their problem, Steve adds, but it happens everywhere, including in places like Canmore, Alta. “You need local people to be able to live and not have to work three jobs and 60 hours a week to survive,” he declares.

Who does he blame for the affordable housing shortage? The politicians.

Maui has been perhaps the most difficult county in Hawaii to get development approved, he says. To move forward, he believes Maui County leadership and state leadership are going to have find ways to say “yes” to development instead of finding ways to say “no.” Temporary housing solutions have been shot down or can’t get permits, he continues. There’s an aversion on Maui to pre-built housing, which would be an obvious solution in this situation,” adding that high-quality, factory-built homes could be on ships tomorrow.

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“Every other jurisdiction in the modern world spends millions trying to get people to come and visit them and spend money,” Steve concludes, “so I don’t think tourism is a bad idea, but it has to be balanced with local housing requirements.”

Donna Kennedy-Glans is active in the energy business and a multi-generational family farm. Her latest book is Teaching the Dinosaur to Dance: Moving Beyond Business as Usual (2022).

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