How to put this nicely? TEACH executives Mark Chasan and Jason Hobson had their asses handed to them by an angry, raucous crowd at the Paia Community Center Monday night ,who told them to take their idea to turn the 23.5 acre Old Maui High School campus into a for-profit “regenerative” Eden and go back to the mainland.
“I can drive you to the airport; I have a big truck,” one North Shore resident offered. That was one of the more polite comments as a stream of speakers from the 200-plus crowd spoke forcefully–at times profanely–against the proposal and TEACH (Technology-Education-Agriculture-Community-Health) itself. The group has proposed “repurposing” the campus into 206,000 square feet of permaculture facilities, housing, a conference center, a Hawaiian Cultural Immersion Center, a food innovation hub, amphitheater and more (click here to read my Nov. 30, 2016 story on the project).
When last we saw Chasan and Hobson, they stood meekly before Maui County Councilman Don Guzman, who had just presided over a Nov. 15 committee meeting packed with North Shore residents who testified against the plan, which would have given TEACH a 60-year lease on the property for $1 per year. Guzman told them at the time, “You’ve got to gain the trust of the community.”
It was apparent from the meeting’s onset at 4:30pm that gaining that trust was going to be difficult, if not impossible.
Protesters lined the street outside the community center waving signs advocating the saving of Hookipa, the North Shore and Hamakuapoko. Others read “No to TEACH LLC”, “No Resorts, “”Aloha Aina,” “No Build Zone” and “Retreat Somewhere Else.”
Inside, Chasan, Hobson, Old Maui High School Program Director Richard Lucas and Teena Rasmussen, the director of the mayor’s Office of Economic Development, regarded the crowd warily. Also on hand was easily the most respected member of the TEACH team, Oahu architect Glenn Mason–an expert in historical restoration–who spoke briefly and looked uncomfortable for the rest of the meeting.
Rasmussen tried to establish a structure for the 1 hour 45-minute meeting by explaining that questions from the audience could come only after four presentations and an exercise where speakers would answer the question: “What would you like to see incorporated into the TEACH project that would be meaningful to you and your family?“ After that, people would be allowed to ask direct questions about the project.
While a semblance of order was maintained through presentations by Lucas, Rasmussen and Mason, catcalls from the audience grew more frequent as Chasan and Hobson waded through their presentation, pretty much the same one that failed to impress the crowd at a smaller community meeting at the high school campus in early November–including Chasan’s oft-stated position, “I’m not a developer; I’m a visionary.”
It was a night of missteps by the hosts. When one woman introduced herself in Hawaiian, she was asked, “Can you please give your name?–a question met with jeers and a withering look from the speaker. Chasan was corrected loudly by audience members when he mispronounced Paia.
At one point, the audience grew so unruly that Valerie Toro, the popular KPOA radio host known as Sista Val, urged the crowd to “calm down and be pono.”
When the time came to answer the question, “What would be meaningful to you” at the campus, one of the first respondents answered, “A school,” to noisy applause. But other answers quickly strayed from the format.
When Mary Ann Pahukoa began to talk about an anti-TEACH petition directed at the County Council that she introduced through social media (rapidly approaching 2,500 signatures), she was asked to confine herself to answering the question. Pahukoa complied, replying, “It would be really meaningful if TEACH would pack up and leave.”
Quickly, speakers stepped forward not to answer The Question, but to complain about what the TEACH project wasn’t going to do.
“I’m 13,” said one speaker. “I’m looking for something that benefits my culture.”
Another called the county’s assertion that the proposal was the only viable solution for the property “completely false. The last thing we need is full gentrification of the North Shore.”
And the biggest concern was traffic. Speaker after speaker related the bumper-to-bumper traffic that made the drive to that night’s meeting prohibitively long, railing against the addition of 206,000 square feet of new space in Hamakuapoko. “See how small our road is,” said one speaker, angrily pointing toward the Hana Highway. “No can! No can! If you build, local people gonna f*** up your s***. This is not pono with us!”
During the actual question and answer session at the end, UH Maui Professor Emeritus and political analyst Dick Mayer told Chasan and Hobson that he wanted to see more “truth. I don’t feel we have that.” He added. “You can’t tell us what buildings are going up, but you can tell us to the penny on your profits.”
Yelling broke out when Rasmussen called an end to comments at 7:30pm, but not before Paia activist Francine “Aunty Mopsy” Aarona asked the crowd if they wanted the project, a question producing a thunderous “No!”
“It was an intense meeting,” Rasmussen reflected on Tuesday. “I didn’t realize how angry the community is. They’re angry about traffic, they’re angry about the cost of housing and they’re angry about vacation rentals. There’s a lot of angst in the community and I really do sympathize with them. All of those things are extremely real and extremely distressing to families.”
Rasmussen said she tried to maintain decorum, and considered it a plus that the meeting “hadn’t broken up into a brawl.”
The economic development director acknowledged that the North Shore’s traffic situation, in particular, has reached “a boiling point. I don’t believe the state of Hawaii is going to be able to ignore these traffic issues anymore with [Hana] highway.”
However, Rasmussen suggested that TEACH was unfairly feeling the heat over these issues. “I think the recent purchase of the 300 acres that happened last week [land located on the opposite side of Paia–click here to read my Feb. 6, 2017 story on that] piled on to all of this angst and anxiety and got all vented to the TEACH group.” Because of that, she called the timing of the community meeting “not ideal.”
Rasmussen said she still believes the TEACH project could be good for the community, but suggested that it might have to be scaled back. “They have a lot of work ahead of them.”
In an email, Chasan wrote that he has “no comment at this time regarding the status of the TEACH project as our partners have not met to discuss last night’s events.”
Photos: Michael Rybak