Given to the city by Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, it is Oahu’s last remaining municipal equestrian facility, in a state with a rich paniolo tradition that horse-lovers fear is slipping away.
The Honolulu Department of Enterprise Services has awarded the operating concession for the 10-acre site to Waimanalo-based Aloha Riding Lessons. Its intensely competitive competitor, Horse Haven, the previous concessionaire, will vacate the premises by early next year.
“The contract for Aloha Riding Lessons LLC has been executed,” said Tracy Kubota, the department’s deputy director.
It happened last week. She wasn’t adding many details but conceded that both bidders had been “passionate” in pursuit of the property.
The heavily wooded site is a valuable property, everyone agrees. Located in the valley that leads to Koko Crater, abutting a peaceful botanical garden and plumeria grove, the city-owned facility includes two barns for boarding horses and three arenas, which are outdoor enclosures for riding.
“The facility is beautiful,” said Kim Hollandsworth, the winning bidder with Aloha Riding. “Where else can you get 10 open acres of land, anywhere from Kahala to Kailua?”
Aloha Riding will pay $5,001 a month to lease the site, both sides confirmed. Horse Haven, the only other bidder, had offered $3,689.
The path to winning the contract has not been easy, Hollandsworth said.
“It’s been hell; it’s been hell,” she said.
She said she was accused of mistreating animals by not giving them enough water, which she said is untrue, and that she has also been insulted on social media, bullied, warned about being blacklisted from equestrian events and threatened with physical violence.
Greg Knudsen, a fellow Hawaii Kai board member, said he was told that Hollandsworth had received what she considered to be credible “death threats, threats of harm.”
Horse Haven’s supporters have also suffered from the mud-slinging, as well as what they called “untruths,” and “negative comments” from Aloha Riding supporters, said Brigitte Egbert, one of the principals involved in the Horse Haven operation.
She said any allegation of death threats was “100% inaccurate.”
The fact is, she said, Horse Haven took over control of the then-dilapidated property six years ago when the buildings were in such bad condition that they had been condemned, and that through “blood, sweat and tears,” she and her friends and family restored the property.
Once the repairs were made and the property was “absolutely gorgeous,” it became attractive enough that others now wanted to wrest control of it from them, she said.
“Somebody else won the concession, but what was condemned is now a thriving, functional asset,” she said.
She said that Aloha Riding had submitted a higher bid but that Horse Haven supporters, who have experience operating the property, knew that the amount they offered was all the property could support.
“There’s an incredible cost to maintain 10 acres,” she said. “We had empirical data of what we could afford to bid.”
She said Horse Haven lost the concession despite never having received “any kind of complaint” from the city about the way the facility was being operated.
The debate over the future of Koko Crater Stables hit the news in 2019, soon after the contract came up for renewal, when Horse Haven was accused of having converted the property from a public-serving facility into an elite institution for training competitive equestrian athletes, where the horses being boarded were said to be worth $25,000 to $50,000 each.
The Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board, where Hollandsworth is a member, had taken an avid interest in who the city allowed to take over the lease, posing regular and persistent and sometimes emotional questions about what members considered elitism by Horse Haven.
The situation at Koko Craters Stable has been on the agenda of the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board monthly for the past 40 months, except when the board was in recess for holidays or because of the covid pandemic.
Roberta Mayer, the board’s chair, said the issue was kept on the agenda because the board monitors public facilities within the district and questions had been raised about how the city had managed the concession contract under the Caldwell administration.
Knudsen, also on the board, said there was real community concern that Horse Haven was “catering to a country club clientele, elite, rather than to the general public.”
Hollandsworth had bid for the contract to operate the facility, saying she would instead offer programs that ordinary families could afford. But Horse Haven was selected for the contract under circumstances Hollandsworth described as suspicious, with her at first winning the bid then having it snatched away.
She made her first appearance at the Hawaii Kai board in April 2019 when the stable issue was under discussion. She introduced herself to board members and told them she had been unfairly treated in the bidding process.
Hollandsworth volunteered to join the Hawaii Kai board the next month, in May, because there was a vacancy. The board gave its unanimous consent, and she became an official member of the board and took a seat at the front table.
Horse Haven’s supporters had come to that meeting to defend themselves against allegations made against them at the previous meeting. Andrea Stoebenau, the parent of one of Horse Haven’s young riders, said she wanted to correct the record and say that the stable was open to the public, held public horse shows and trained beginners.
She also told the board that she considered it unfair to Horse Haven for Hollandsworth to be a member of a board that appeared to be challenging Horse Haven’s right to operate the stable when she had been a bidder herself.
“I feel very strongly that this is a conflict of interest,” Stoebenau said. “I feel it is highly inappropriate for you to be on that board in any capacity when you are trying to take control” of the stable.
On the video of the meeting, a male board member who was not identified said that Stoebenau’s complaint was an “uncalled for personal attack.”
Others, however, also later questioned Hollandsworth’s presence on the board.
“I have an issue with it,” said Emily Kawashima, an enthusiastic rider and Horse Haven supporter although she does not own or board a horse there. “I’m an attorney and I understand the role of fiduciary responsibility. The fact that (the issue) has been on the board this long is interesting, to say the least.”
Hollandsworth said there was no conflict of interest and that she had always recused herself when questions about the stable came up, and that in any case, neighborhood boards are basically powerless.
“The neighborhood board doesn’t have any real pull,” she said. “We write resolutions.”
But Horse Haven’s supporters said that in meeting after meeting, board members criticized their operation of the stables, peppering city officials with questions and criticisms, and that it had an adverse effect on how the enterprise was perceived publicly and by the city.
Egbert said the Hawaii Kai board had “absolutely not” treated Horse Haven fairly, adding that it gave credence to what was “quite frankly rumors.”
Hawaii Kai board member Knudsen acknowledged that the board had faced some criticism on this issue, and that it had put the board “in an awkward situation.”
Kobuta, of city’s enterprise services department, said Hawaii Kai board members have the right to question city officials about anything that is a matter of “public information.”
“They can always inquire,” she said. “They can ask and ask.”
In interviews this week, leaders of Aloha Riding and Horse Haven said they are interacting peacefully now and making plans for an orderly transition of control of the facility.
Hollandsworth said she will be leaving her current property in Waimanalo and moving to the Hawaii Kai site early next year and expects to be offering horse activities at affordable costs, including some free events, as well as horse boarding.
She said she is glad that the hostility is in the past.
“We’re all in this for the greater good of horses,” she said. “It’s sad. We shouldn’t be this way to each other. I’m glad we have moved on.”
Kawashima said she wishes Hollandsworth all the best.
“I hope they do well,” she said. “I don’t want the property to suffer.”
Egbert said that Horse Haven is considering an exciting new venue that it hopes to announce soon, and that the families that have boarded their horses or ridden there are a “tight-knit” group that plans on “staying together.”
“We have a very loyal following; we’re like a family,” she said.
She said they were sorry to leave the stable behind but proud that they had left it in better shape than they found it.
“We wish the city, the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board and the equine community all the best with this facility,” she said. “Looking back I have no regrets.”
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a reporter for Civil Beat. A long-time reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of “The Woman Behind the New Deal,” “Isabella the Warrior Queen” and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.