The Future of
citizens gather to create a vision
"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
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."
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.
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.
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…"
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
"Change happens whether you want it or not," noted FDH
steering committee member Beth Dykstra of the Bank of Hawai'i.
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
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
"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
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"
comments over-heard during the day from participants were the
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."
"I love our historical buildings. They are diamonds in the rough."
"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."
"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."
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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