“Wailuku is dead.” That could have been the rallying call of those testifying in support of the Wailuku Civic Complex at the March 29 meeting of Maui County Council’s Economic Development and Budget Committee. The lead suspect in the death of this historic town? Well, that remains a mystery with multiple suspects. But proponents of the complex made it clear that the $84.2-million project represented the best chance for Wailuku’s resuscitation.
As supporters of the costliest item in the county’s FY2019 budget took turns justifying its price tag by calling Wailuku “dying,” “in decay,” “broken,” and “not functional,” detractors voiced discontentment with the project’s cost, perceived lack of community input, and potential impact.
The testimony during the day-long committee meeting circled around a single agenda item: a move by EDB Committee Chair Councilmember Keani Rawlins-Fernandez (Moloka‘i) to defund the Wailuku Civic Complex. With the $40-million-plus first phase of the project authorized for bonds and scheduled to break ground this summer, Rawlins-Fernandez proposed stripping the project’s funds to about $13 million, just enough for the already-contracted offsite infrastructure improvements, which include upgraded water and sewer lines, storm drains, underground utilities, and road surfacing in the surrounding area. Under this proposal, construction of Wailuku Civic Complex Phase 1B, the parking structure, would be halted and hacked from the previous budget.
At the end of the day, the proposal failed by a vote of 3-5, with only freshman Councilmembers Rawlins-Fernandez, Tamara Paltin, and Shane Sinenci supporting defunding the complex. Councilmember Tasha Kama (Kahului) was not present.
Despite the roundabout arrival at the status quo, the meeting illuminated community sentiment regarding the contentious multi-million-dollar project, and stimulated discussion around “revitalization,” a buzzword that remains loosely defined.
For commercial landowners, it meant transforming Wailuku into a destination.
With the full buildout of the civic complex, the town could be a “place where people on Maui gather and we go for dinner, we go for arts, and also retail,” said Jonathan Starr, a long-time supporter of the project and landowner of multiple commercial parcels in Wailuku Town.
“Wailuku needs a reason for people to come and a reason for people to stay,” echoed Kristin Holmes, who owns commercial property and a business at the corner of Vineyard and Church Streets. “I personally feel that creating an arts and culture district would create a base for the after-5[pm] crowd.”
That rhetoric made some Wailuku residents bristle.
“One of the things that I’ve read a lot on Rewailuku.org is that they want to attract tourists; they want the area to be like Kihei, Lahaina, and Pa‘ia, and – to be honest – that’s just appalling,” said one Wailuku resident. “This is a place where local citizens go. We don’t want, necessarily, an influx of tourists in this area.”
For others, “revitalization” is less about realizing some grand visitor-oriented vision and more about addressing Wailuku’s more immediate problems, like parking and retail vacancies.
“You go out there and look at these business that are boarded up and closed up – Wailuku Town is dying,” said Lawrence Kauha‘aha‘a, who runs the Wailuku Clean and Safe Program which maintains the Market Street area. “To me, it’s just as simple as creating more parking.”
Saedene Ota, co-owner of the now-closed Market Street business Maui Thing, rattled off a list of small businesses and restaurants in Wailuku that have moved or closed in the last 10 years. “Small businesses need the support of not only ample parking but also an anchor hub like the civic center,” she added.
Likewise, Richard Dan, a business owner on Market Street, stated that the lack of parking has led to Wailuku’s decay. “The garage will save this town, will save this community. It will do nothing but help us,” he concluded.
But others questioned whether parking was really the culprit behind the retail vacancies, and whether development is really the adrenaline shot the town needs.
“[Vacancies are] kind of a problem in Maui in general,” said a Wailuku resident. “Everywhere is struggling. Everywhere has vacancies.”
“Something else is killing retail, something else is killing businesses,” agreed Sean Housman, who pastors Calvary Chapel in Wailuku. “I know that Maui Mall, you can go down there: Whole Foods is doing well, but you go around the corner, it’s full of empty stores, and there’s plenty of parking. You go down Dairy Road: There’s full-on malls, full of parking, empty stores. You go down to Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center: plenty of parking, empty stores.”
To these members of the community, revitalization efforts would be better focused on the basic functions of the county.
“NPR says State of Hawai‘i comes in with a D-plus for infrastructure which doesn’t surprise me,” said Wailuku resident and longtime business owner Colleen Rohozinski, who described a homeless encampment in the area and a time she personally had to direct traffic after a water main break.
“I’m more concerned about the needs of our community,” said testifier Nalani Kaninau. “I think that we’ve had development galore and I don’t know who this economic development benefits. Our village is leaving in droves because they can’t afford to live here.”
However, as County Managing Director Sandy Baz stated after the committee entered deliberation, such issues can’t be solved by a simple redirection of the funds that have been authorized for the Wailuku Civic Complex.
“Each authorization to issue bonds for a project are individual authorizations,” he said. “So if this project, the bond authorization was not available, then we just couldn’t borrow the money. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the money is available for something else; you would have to appropriate new money for those purposes.”
Besides, the administration argued, the $80-million-plus loan is an investment in economic development that will pay for itself and more.
“My strategy in supporting the Wailuku Civic Complex is to generate revenue through economic development; and there are few possibilities with a better return on investment than downtown revitalization,” Mayor Michael Victorino stated in written testimony supporting the funding for the project.
He based this on projections that the complex will fund its maintenance and raise revenue through a combination of paid parking, paid vendor space, and – mostly – tax revenue from increased property values in the surrounding area.
Councilmember Rawlins-Fernandez noted that Victorino’s stance could put the county in the position of needing to support further area development in order to recover the investment. She asked Erin Wade, the lead planner of the civic complex, if the community was aware that last April’s “Analysis of Fiscal and Economic Impacts” of the Wailuku Civic Complex included building hotels as part of its economic projections.
Wade couldn’t answer the question, but responded, “I know that it has been, from the beginning, part of the analysis and it is really the whole point of downtown economic revitalization: to encourage and create value for properties that are significantly distressed and undervalued, which is the situation today.”
Increasing property values is “revitalization” that Councilmember Riki Hokama can get behind. The veteran councilmember harkened back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, when real property tax revenue from Wailuku and Kahului funded development in South and West Maui. Today, “West Maui is the number one district; South Maui is the number two district – the only two districts that have positive cash flow under real property taxation,” he said.
“I’m grateful that my district brings in a lot of revenue to the county,” Councilmember Tamara Paltin of West Maui responded, but then ticked off the problems that have arisen in her district as a result of growth, including traffic problems, injection wells, lack of affordable housing, and longtime residents “pushed out by commercial vending.”
“It’s kind of not all it’s cracked up to be, being the revenue generator for the county,” she said. “Sometimes it feels like you get pimped out, so to speak.”
The comment touched on the implicit questions of the day: What does “revitalization” really mean? Who does it benefit? And is it true revitalization if some benefit while others lose?
Until these questions are explicitly addressed, expect the battle to wage on.
What would the revitalization of Wailuku and Maui look like to you? On Thursday, April 4, the County of Maui will hold a public question and answer session on the Wailuku Civic Complex in Council Chambers in the Kalana O Maui (County) Building at 5pm.
[This story is part of MauiTime’s Changing Maui: Wailuku Civic Complex series. The series examines the Wailuku Civic Complex project and the changes it will bring to Wailuku Town.]
Image courtesy County of Maui