Growing Grove Farm

marissa sandblom is willing to try non-traditional methods

marissa sandblom is willing to try non-traditional methods

Grove Farm VP Marissa Sandblom, a Kaua’i native, looks at the big picture in planning the iconic island company’s future, and it’s very green indeed

Marissa Sandblom, Grove Farm vice president, grew up on Kaua’i and has a vision of sustainability for the company and the island

Grove Farm is so much more than a developer, says the company’s vice president Marissa Sandblom.

“We understand that land development is not a sustainable thing. It’s not our mission and it’s not who we are as a company.”

While commercial and residential construction is part of the Lihu’e business’ model, it isn’t all the former sugar plantation has to offer.

Born and raised on Kaua’i, Sandblom says Grove Farm is exactly the type of company she always wanted to work for. Since its inception in 1864, it has been known as an innovative plantation, pioneering home ownership for its employees and always ahead of the technological curve, she says.

It is that same avant-garde pursuit the company plans to bring to future projects like Wailani, the island’s first smart-growth community to be located near the Lihu’e airport.

“I personally can’t wait for Wailani to get started,” says Sandblom, who, with husband Erik, a system administrator for the Pacific Missile Range Facility, has two children, Safina, 5, and 2-year-old Swede.

“I think it’s going to be amazing,” she says. “Just that dynamic. Living there would be hard to beat.”

In the walkable high-density community, residents will live in close proximity to amenities such as a grocery store, eight-plex cinema, a school and several small businesses.

“You can do everything you need to do,” says Sandblom.

But unless she earns a geographic exception for her children upon entering high school, Sandblom may not actually be living there.

“I just bleed blue,” says the 1997 Waimea High School graduate with a smile. “I’ll bleed blue forever, no one can take that away from me.”

But she will have plenty of time to determine whether the community will be a proper fit for her family, as the venture is still awaiting final approval from the county. Groundbreaking isn’t expected to occur until 2012.

“It’s a challenge, just because it’s not the traditional way of doing things,” says Sandblom who, despite her family’s prominent west side presence, is originally from Wailua.

Even the divided use of potable drinking water and nonpotable irrigation water is unique.

the sandbloms, marissa and erik with safina and swede

the sandbloms, marissa and erik with safina and swede

It took 10 years alone to complete Grove Farm’s water purification plant in Kapaia, where some 15,000 households are currently served filtered surface water, says Sandblom, whose primary task at the company when she started six years ago was to plan the opening ceremony.

Wailani’s master planning process has been such a major feat and has taken so much time that it will be a great celebration once the infrastructure begins, says Sandblom, whose grandparents were the first generation to move to Kaua’i from Japan.

“Wailani is important to this island, not just because it’s going to be this transformational, new community, but also because it’s most likely going to be a very large construction project that will last many years,” she says of the projected job creation. “The scope of it will be tremendous.”

Wailani is just one of the many rewarding aspects working at Grove Farm, a company purchased by Punahou graduate and former AOL chief executive officer Steve Case in 2000.

Owning 40,000 acres of land from the former Grove Farm, Lihue and Koloa Plantations and holding more than 200 leases with farmers, businesses, nonprofits and community groups, the business prides itself in having local roots. The company also gives back to the community, awarding three $20,000 college scholarships a year, and donating some 1,200 acres of land to the University of Hawaii’s educational system where Kaua’i Community College now resides.

Its 12 employees all were born and raised in the state, and even the company’s owner has historic ties to the company, says Sandblom with pride. Steve’s grandfather, Hib Case, was the bookkeeper for Grove Farm Plantation.

Maintaining that sense of island camaraderie, Grove Farm representatives not only formed a “fit club,” where they regularly exercise as a group, they also garden together and hold weekly luncheons.

“We’re such a close-knit office,” Sandblom says. “And we all wear many hats.”

Employees even dedicates their time to voluntarily assisting a nonprofit of their choice.

“It’s a small thing, but it means a lot to us as employees – you feel you’re making a difference and your time is valued,” says Sandblom, who is on the PBS Hawaii board and is a member of several local organizations such as Kaua’i Planning & Action Alliance, Kaua’i Visitors Bureau and Kaua’i

Economic Development Board.

And that’s not the only rewarding element her job has to offer – others include preserving an 8-acre habitat in Kapaia to help protect Hawaiian nene. This is the fourth year that the endangered geese are to be relocated as babies to the area in hope that they will continue to return to the protected land to breed.

“We were told it could be considered a success if they bred there because when they imprint, they stay there for life,” she explains, adding that in recent months they discovered a nene that had returned with goslings.

“Opening the gate and watching them waddle out to test their little wings for the first time before they fly off reminds me of what an amazing job I have,” says Sandblom, who has been present for every release.

The wildlife preservation program even won the General

Electric Ecomagination award in 2008.

Grove Farm also is involved in a native plant ecological restoration project near Kilohana crater. And with the help of Kaua’i keiki, about 2,500 Hawaiian plants are currently growing.

Marissa Sandblom sees agriculture as a continuing part of Grove Farm’s future

Marissa Sandblom sees agriculture as a continuing part of Grove Farm’s future

“It’s rewarding to expose kids to gardening and make it fun so they look forward to it, because we do need the next generation to be more aware,” says Sandblom, a graduate of the inaugural class of Leadership Kaua’i. “When you get a kid excited about planting something, it’s not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a reward unto itself.”

Moreover, Grove Farm is involved in yet another agricultural enterprise at Maha’ulepu. Plans are under way to cultivate produce on some 1,000 acres of land in the valley utilizing the Waita Reservoir, which holds approximately 2 billion gallons of water.

The anticipated 300 to 400 acres of taro alone would nearly double the state’s kalo production.

“The vision is to grow food for Kaua’i,” she says, dispelling the rumor that there are plans to create a hotel on the South Shore location.

“Our main focus is the agricultural valley,” says Sandblom, a Hawaii Pacific University MBA graduate and recipient of the Paul CT Loo HPU alumni professional achievement award. “If that can be successful, it would be such a benefit to the island in terms of the economy and food security. It’s a tremendous goal, though; we recognize that.”

The company also is pioneering a plan to grow algae in Kapaia to create jet fuel in a partnership with Hawaii BioEnergy.

“The bigger picture was that Hawaii is in a very strategic location in the Pacific, but if anything should happen or we’re cut off from fuel, our military presence would be very diminished.

“So in terms of security, the idea is to have the ability to have our own fuel supply locally,” Sandblom says.

While Grove Farm continues to develop land, the company is heavily involved in ongoing contemporary projects most people are not aware of.

“There have been some developers who have not left a good taste in people’s mouths. I totally understand, they could’ve done things a lot differently, but it’s not fair to lump everyone together,” she says.

And while the company’s environmental projects abound, the island would likely not be the same without Kukui Grove Shopping Center or the Puhi Industrial area, both developed by Grove Farm.

“It’s about finding a balance,” says Sandblom, who mentions the company is still in talks with the county regarding accommodating the new landfill in Kapaia, with the hope that it will eventually contain a Materials Recovery Facility.

“Every experience shapes you – good or bad – and has its purpose. So when people have an extreme view of the company or our projects, it’s something to build upon. There are going to be people who will detract us from our projects and that cannot be helped, but maybe we can work to help minimize that going forward.

“I’m an eternal optimist.” Sandblom says she plans to see many of Grove Farm’s projects through in the next several years.

“Grove Farm is just an institution unto itself,” she says. “Kind of how you want to make your parents and family proud of you, I want to make sure people still think of Grove Farm with high esteem. With all of our past accomplishments, just building on that and moving forward.”

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