The Future of Downtown Hilo

Hilo citizens gather to create a vision

by Shepherd Bliss

"My family has been in Hilo for over 100 years, so I'm concerned about its future," nine-year-old Cameron McDaniel told some 85 adults at a Downtown Hilo Community Visioning workshop recently. Eighty-year-old Fred Koehnen, born and raised in Hilo, followed with reminisces and concluded, "My dream for the future would be for Hilo to remain the kind of community it has always been."
Meanwhile, an inflow of people are moving to Hawai'i Island and impacting Hilo, which many people feel is their town. McDaniel, a student at the downtown Connections Charter School, and Koehen were two of the citizens who came together for the third of four workshops during 2004 dedicated to the mission of "building a community-based vision and living plan for downtown Hilo."
The Friends of Downtown Hilo (FDH) sponsored the community dialogue. It invited planning consultant Steven Ames from Portland, Oregon, to lead the all-day session. "To name your vision is to give it power," Ames asserted. He plans to return for the next workshop on Dec. 4 at the University of Hawai'i - Hilo.
"Cameron showed the thinking of young people. He is Hilo's future," FDH steering committee member Mary James reflected after the workshop. "The young people came up with some of the same concerns we have. Fred helped us look at the past and with Cameron we looked into the future. People really care."
As participants arrived, they were greeted by walls displaying student artwork from the school where Cameron attends the fourth grade. Attendees, seated at seven tables, focused on subjects such as "Strengthening and Sustaining Our Community," "Managing Growth," "Preserving the Environment" and "Creating Economic Vitality." Then, a group of University of Hawai'i-Hilo students opened the day's work with a pule.
Billy Kenoi, of Mayor Harry Kim's office, welcomed participants in grand local style, mixing humor, serious intent, pidgin, dance movements, and a playful love for Hilo. He admitted to problems such as the "lack of infrastructure, affordable housing and long-term planning." But the attorney with three children put these issues in a larger context that seemed to make them more manageable. "As we move forward, we need to take our core values with us," Kenoi contended. He emphasized the need to insure safety for families, especially children.
"We don't like drugs," Cameron noted. "They can get out of control and hurt people. Litter pollutes the ocean and the air. People seem sad when they don't have a home." Cameron's teacher, Kaholo Daguman, explained after that that the words on the poster that his student used for his inspiring presentation came from students during discussions about Hilo. Together the student and teacher will report back to their class, study coastal Hilo's potential futures further, and perhaps create more art for the next workshop.
The County's Planning Department was one of the partners supporting the workshop. Its director, Chris Yuen, welcomed people to the workshop, noting, "What makes a town great? The thing that makes a town great is its people." Other partners enabling the workshop were the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association, the Hawai'i County Resource Center, and the Big Island Conservation and Development Council.

"I Remember When…"
Hilo businessman William Moore gave an "I remember when…" speech. He grew up in Hilo in the l950s, when it was a plantation town and Palace Theater tickets cost only 10 cents. Appreciations were expressed to the Kress Theater for still offering its daytime shows for only 50 cents. Moore recalled the five cent rides on the Sampan buses and Hilo filling up on Friday nights after payday at the plantations. He remembered being able to leave unlocked bikes downtown.
"Honoring and recognizing the past is essential to creating a future," planner Ames noted. "We live in a time of incredible change. Many things are coming at us fast. We live at the hinge of history. In some ways our communities are falling apart around the world," Ames said as he created a realistic context for the day. Though geographically isolated from the rest of the world, global changes do impact Hilo.
"Change happens whether you want it or not," noted FDH steering committee member Beth Dykstra of the Bank of Hawai'i.
This was Ames' third day of leading workshops in Hilo that were free and open to the public. He began on Thursday working mainly with government officials and employees in a presentation attended by about 30 people. By Friday, the number had more than doubled for a content-based training for community leaders, where Ames detailed the Oregon model that he and others have developed and helped implement in places as different as Flagstaff in mountainous Arizona and Vincent in Australia. Ames is the author of a book entitled "A Guide to Community Visioning." He emerged as a storyteller with images from Oregon cities and elsewhere to guide Hilo residents as they determine their future.
"We want the best for Hilo," Dykstra noted. "And we do not know what that is. FDH wants people to tell us what should happen. We are not the decision-makers. We are the synthesizers who are networking. We want to get the community's voice out. Our group has no president or chairperson. We are a steering committee where each person takes a turn leading. We operate by consensus."
Visioning is a process based on a community responding to the following questions: Where are we now? Where are we going? Where do we want to be? How do we get there? Are we getting there? "Visioning is about the bigger picture," Ames noted in a downtown church basement on Friday. "Some people may feel that visioning is unnecessary," noted Susan Gagorick of the County Planning Department in early November. "But it pulls people together, provides meaning, and builds community."
Hilo is currently reaching a population of 50,000 and is the second largest city in the state. It is technically a town, rather than a city, since it has no separate government from the county government. "Quaint," "picturesque," "special," and having a "small town atmosphere" are words that people use to describe shoreline Hilo. Downtown Hilo has over 200 businesses, forty plus restaurants, various specialty shops, art galleries, and new businesses. Downtown is in a Special Management Area as a flood and tsunami inundation zone.

"Our Community is Changing"
"Our community is changing. We have a burgeoning population of new people and businesses," FDH steering committee member Alice Moon noted. "We need to develop a vision and workable plan before these changes put undue stress on the physical, economic and social environments and negatively impact sustainability. Housing prices are growing faster than income and crime is increasing."
"Sustainability" was defined on a sign on the wall as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future." Dykstra explained, "Sustainability is a major interest of the Friends of Downtown Hilo."
Moon noted that this workshop is the third in a series of four. In March, 60 people attended a workshop led by a Canadian planner on Smart Growth concepts, followed by a May workshop attended by 75 people. These workshops identified various problems, including lack of parking and public restroom facilities, the homeless, drugs, safety issues, broken-down buildings and trashy vacant lots, zoning/building restrictions, inadequate public transportation, and a Bay needing to be cleaned up.
Among downtown Hilo's many assets that have been identified are the following: mountain views, farmers market, free parking, bandstand, Kalakaua Park, Wailuku riverfront, ocean activities, restaurants and shops, bayfront open space, library and post office, recreation options, museums, and an historic style and distinct sense of place as a compact town.
"I was glad to hear all the interest in the bay and water," noted FDH's James, who also coordinates the Hilo Bay Watershed Advisory Group. This group is developing a restoration plan to clean up the bay, which has been declared to have "impaired waters." "The bay and cleaning it up were talked about at various tables. Hilo Bay is a jewel. People want to polish it and make it shine. People want there to be more activities on the water." James added, "People want a place downtown to meet. They want more activities downtown, including more family events."
Though these workshops focused on downtown Hilo, Dykstra noted that they are models for similar visioning workshops elsewhere on the island. "Downtown Hilo is ground zero, "Dykstra noted. "We want to take this visioning work out to other communities." Visitors from Hawi, Kona, Oceanview, Puna and elsewhere were among those who attended the workshops.
"People want us to expand our concerns beyond downtown," James explained. "People far up the Hamakua Coast and into Puna speak of 'going downtown' to Hilo."
Ainaloa resident Barbara Lively echoed this sentiment: "Hilo is our capital. It belongs to all of us. We have an interest in what happens there." Lively appreciated the workshop as "an exercise in getting people to think about Hilo."

"I Like Hilo"
Among the comments over-heard during the day from participants were the following:
o "I like Hilo because it is alive. But it's not noisy, like Honolulu, where I came from in l978. With that quietness one can become part of the land."
o "Tsunamis are a way of life. Any planning for Hilo needs to consider that there will be another and it may be bigger."
o "I love our historical buildings. They are diamonds in the rough."
o "Hilo is the rainiest city in the nation. The rain helps protect us from more growth. I love the rain, which brings us so much green. It can be fun to play in the rain. I think we should host a Rain Festival and make it a big national event."
o "We are getting a lot of new people, which can increase traffic problems. But they also bring vital energy. Downtown buildings that have been on the market for years are now being sold."
o "I love Hilo because it is a city in nature with the power of the ocean, rivers, and exists on the edge of the volcanoes."
o "I am concerned by Hilo's real estate boom and rapid growth and how they can threaten the quality of life."
o "I like the coconut trees and the special buildings that are not like boring, regular buildings."
o "We need to strengthen the natural link between downtown and the bay."
o "Downtown Hilo was once a bustling area, which it could become again with effort."
At times the conversations got so animated that facilitator Ames had to blow a whistle. The day's discussions were vigorous but harmonious. Though some had been in similar conversations about Hilo for years, the time seems to have come to develop a plan and implement it. The enthusiastic participants at this workshop committed themselves to making progress and creating a vision for the future that welcomes inputs from other citizens.
As the day closed, Ames emphasized the importance of follow-up. "We polled the community with these workshops," noted planner Gagorick. "We have lots of broad information. We are now struggling to organize it and prioritize it." Future steps include identifying "smaller, doable projects or 'easy wins.'" The FDH talks about hosting a "road show" around Hilo for further outreach. Seven subcommittees have been established; task forces and a leadership team are being developed.

Obstacles and Skepticism
A week after the workshop, this reporter met with Dykstra and walked downtown. We discussed a number of obstacles to the improvement of Hilo. The constant threat of another tsunami or natural disaster like lava flowing into Hilo makes some owners of downtown property reluctant to make investments.
Though aloha exists in Hilo, newcomers (malihini) can be viewed with suspicion and seen as outsiders who do not understand Hilo's traditions. So integrating these people - some of whom have substantial resources - into the improvement of downtown can be difficult, though it is essential. For various reasons, many people who move to Hawai'i eventually move away.
Some of the dilapidated downtown buildings that have been owned by the same families for generations are in the hands of once-local people who now live in Honolulu, on the mainland, or elsewhere. Other buildings are owned by mainland corporations with no commitment to Hawai'i, other than the bottom line of extracting financial gain. Off-island owners can be obstacles to improvement. A local economy requires local rather than absentee ownership to remain vital. Outside pressures can damage local control.
Though some people have a nostalgia for the plantation system, its legacy includes that of taking wealth from the land and away from the island, exploiting the labor of the many to benefit a few. Plantation monocrops and chemical use have left lands surrounding Hilo depleted and degraded. On the other hand, agricultural diversity preserves bio-diversity; eco-systems and cities tend to be stabilized and strengthened by diversity.
Some old-timers have been through various cycles of talking about Hilo and wonder if this is just a repeat of more talk and little action. Some weary old-timers feel "I've heard all his before." Some developers are ready to build and make improvements, but feel the government ties them up in too many regulations and requirements, rather than supporting them.
Though most participants interviewed during and after the workshop were enthusiastic about it and Hilo's future, some were skeptical.
"There was too much brainstorming and not enough focus," commented one. "The county, the state, and the big developers already have plans for Hilo," added another.
Beneath the goodwill of the workshop there may be conflicting and incompatible views of the future of Hilo. "There was a lot of exciting and hopeful energy at the workshop, but it may not lead to anything," noted one participant. The visioning workshop was certainly an exercise in participatory democracy, but one wonders what will happen when the citizens meet the plans of the powerful.
Getting a vision for downtown Hilo that various stakeholders can agree with will be hard enough; implementing an action plan may be more difficult. "Most plans end up sitting on a shelf," admitted planner Gagorik. "We will need key leaders to follow the process through and make the plan happen. When we get further down the line with the action, we will get the differences," she admitted. "We will need to work collaboratively."
Facilitator Ames provided examples in Oregon and elsewhere where citizens donated many hours of their time over many years to develop visions that in fact were implemented. "These workshops help focus us and move us forward," James contended. "Steven Ames is very helpful in moving us along and we are glad that he is returning in December."
The next visioning workshop will be December 4, Saturday, at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, outside in its Student Center Plaza. It is open to the public and organizers hope that new people will come. "We encourage pre-registration," Gagorik noted. "It will help us with planning, such as how much food to order."
"The next workshop will build on the information generated at the first three and take the vision several steps further," explained Ames. "It will be even more participatory than the October event." Organizers anticipate 100 to 150 citizens to attend the Dec. 4 gathering. They are already talking about following it up with community events in February, April, and June, after which they plan to present a plan.
For More Information: Susan O'Neill, 933-9313

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