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Reflecting on the Sheraton development

Saturday 21 October 2023 | Written by Al Williams | Published in Economy, Features, Local, National, Weekend


Reflecting on the Sheraton development
An artists impression shows former develop Mirage Group's plans. STUFF/SUPPLIED/23100427

A published author and former Government minister has weighed in on the ongoing Sheraton debate, labelling its background “a nightmare”.

Iaveta Short, author of False Start in Paradise, which offered readers “a bird’s eye view of the turbulent periods” following self-government in the Cook Islands, described the Sheraton project’s chequered history as a “nightmare if you think about”.

“So many people got involved, it was a disaster.”

The multi-million-dollar redevelopment of the abandoned Sheraton site was announced by Prime Minister Mark Brown in May 2022 after Cook Islands News persisted with questions.

The redevelopment is being led by Rarotonga businessman Chris Vaile, managing director of Radun Limited – a recent partnership formed with landowner Pa Ariki. 

The concept for the site envisions a “sustainable, mixed-use, village-style development that will include residential, short-stay and tourist accommodation, recreational facilities, local stores and markets, eateries and other ancillary services”.

More recently, questions have been raised around government’s “no issue” statement regarding the closure of the coastal main road in Vaimaanga to make way for the Sheraton redevelopment.

The latest drama follows a long line of attempts to turn a decades old dream into a reality.

The development has been plagued by a long run of failures over the past four decades.

Iaveta Short pictured at home in Rarotonga. 23102060

Short recalls the dramas.

“It was a dream, the people in charge were dreamers,” he said of the early days.

Short was High Commissioner for the Cook Islands in Wellington when the resort development got underway.

He said there were whisperings and doubts in New Zealand and the Cooks at the time.

Also read:

> Sheraton redevelopment steps up, road closure on the horizon

> Letter: New Vaimaanga development

> Letter: Sheraton redevelopment     

“Part of the problem is we had a lot of young people with qualifications who couldn’t handle it; it is still part of the problem today,” he said of Government involvement in the project.

“That is the hallmark of a disaster when you have people of little experience making decisions.”

Short said it was clearly a disaster from the beginning.

“If you have people who don’t understand there will be a disaster.

“You have to pay administration costs upfront; a little country like the Cook Islands can’t handle that.

“When you get into contracts of that size, you need proper advice; a lot of people in government don’t know.”

Short estimated initial costs at $50 million, about $200 million in 2023.

“Proper advice today is expensive.”

He knew at the time that New Zealand was looking at the development from “the outside” and wonders if it would have been wise to ask the nation for advice in the early stages of the project.

“You know when government masters are charged with doing the project they don’t care about the cost.

“They only see the glory, not the hard work.

“The accountability is not there and the public voice is muscled.”

Short said he is not sceptical, but positive, a “realist”.

“You can’t turn eggs into gold; if you hold an egg long enough it will go rotten.”  

A rough timeline of events surrounding the beleaguered resort shows rumours circulated in Rarotonga about who would win the rights for the Sheraton project in 2018.

At the time it was alleged that a group of Chinese investors had made a tender offer on the site.

It was announced at the end of 2017 that New Zealand’s Mirage Group surrendered its lease.

Mirage Group, which acquired the lease in 2010, abandoned its plans for the rundown resort, joining a long list of those who had tried and failed to complete the development.

The site had been derelict since the Italian-backed project to build a five-star resort there collapsed in the early 1990s, almost bankrupting the country.

The project was 80 per cent complete when it fell apart, but over the years repeated efforts to finish the hotel had foundered.

The site is said to be jinxed after a curse, condemning any business there to fail, was placed on the land during an ownership dispute that led to a shooting there in 1911.

The curse was reintroduced in 1990 at the ceremony to mark the start of work on the hotel when More Rua, a descendent of the shooting victim, entered the site and split the rock bearing a commemorative plaque with a spear.

The buildings remain standing but have long since lost their fixtures and fittings, and opinion is divided on whether many of the structures can be salvaged.

Footnote: Short was the first Cook Islander to graduate with a law degree from Auckland University and returned home to be in the midst of the difficult winds of change that followed self-governance. He was a minister in the Sir Tom Davis government, High Commissioner for the Cook Islands in Wellington, and the go-to man to solve many of the problems of government across the political divide. He holds a chiefly (Mataiapo) title on Rarotonga and was awarded an OBE in 1995. He has retired from politics and public service and is a businessman on Rarotonga.