Hilo Rising

In 1999, this magazine visited Hilo and found a community in trouble. Now, art dealers hold more sway than drug dealers, and Hilo is building a future to rival its storied past.

Downtown Hilo has long been thought of as sleepy and quiet. But lately, there’s been a buzz in the historic Big Island town. "It’s the last remaining old-style Pacific town," says Jeffrey Mermel, owner of the Fireplace and Home Center in downtown Hilo, explaining why downtown has recently been attracting noticeable numbers of new businesses, residents and visitors. "East Hawai’i has been discovered," he says.

The shallows of Hilo Bay, viewed here from Queen Lili’uokalani Gardens, are popular with net fisherman. photos by Olivier Koning

That area, especially the Puna district, is one of the fastest growing areas in the state. In just the first two months of this year, 560 building permits were issued, many of them in Puna, compared with 373 in the same period last year. All those new residents need services, and Hilo, East Hawai’i’s "big town," is where the bulk of such business is located.

Don’t misunderstand—in many ways, downtown Hilo, situated along the curve of Hilo Bay, with Mauna Kea as its towering backdrop, is still old style. On hot days, a line still forms at Wilson’s by the Bay, a shop near the corner of Kamehameha Avenue and Haili Street that seems to defy sustainability by selling shave ice, with homemade syrup, for little more than a buck. The Kress Theatre offers movies for 50 cents or a dollar, depending on the time of day. Some sidewalks still have metal rings where you can tie up your horse, should you be so inclined.

And in many ways, the downtown retains its small-town atmosphere. People meet over coffee at Bear’s, on Keawe Street, where you often see regulars at the outside tables. It’s hard to wander around downtown without encountering familiar faces.

Designer Sig Zane (front row, seated) is known for his strong graphic sense. Kuha’o Zane, his son, standing behind him, is also in the business. They are shown in the Sig Zane showroom on Hilo’s bay front with employees Pomaika’i Kamoku (left) and Edgar Ombac (right).

But the amount of renovation, improvement and new business over the last few years in Hilo’s downtown—generally considered to be bounded by the Hilo Bayfront, Ponahawai Street, Kapi’olani Street and the Wailuku river—is unmistakable. Formerly a grand rooming house built in 1913, for instance, the upstairs of the Burns Building is now the Hilo Bay Hostel, restored, airy and high-ceilinged, still with its original, grand wooden staircase. Upscale gift shops, an ever-increasing number of art galleries, and clothing shops, such as Sig Zane Designs and Na Makua, abound. There are numerous restaurants, ranging from tiny hole-in-the-walls to the elegant Restaurant Kaikodo, run by internationally known Asian art dealers who have decorated it with world-class Chinese art décor, Murano glass chandeliers and a fancy, 19th-century carved wooden bar flown in from England.

The elegant Palace Theatre, built in 1925 and currently being restored, shows art house movies and hosts plays and musical groups. A "First Friday" art walk takes place every month with stores, restaurants and art galleries open until 8 p.m. Downtown Hilo even has three museums—the Pacific Tsunami Museum, the Plantation Museum and Mokupapapa Discovery Center.

According to one long-time resident, downtown Hilo is evolving into a "cultural enclave."

Why now? Not only has the economy improved in recent years, but real estate in Hilo, the state’s second largest city (after Honolulu), remains affordable in comparison to other parts of Hawai’i. Downtown commercial properties recently available included a 8,300-square-foot building at the corner of Kino’ole and Haili Streets for $925,000 and a 10,400-square-foot building on Kïlauea Avenue for $1.4 million. Such downtown prices are "definitely cheaper than you’re going to find in Honolulu," says Tony Arruda, owner and principal broker of Arruda Properties.

Though a few downtown buildings and lots belong to absentee landlords who have not renovated or improved them—frustrating the active community organizations made up of business and land owners trying to spruce up downtown—many other older buildings have recently changed hands and been refurbished. And tourism has increased dramatically, with cruise ships bringing more than 4,000 people a week to Hilo, which will increase to more than 6,000 per week when Norwegian Cruise Lines adds another ship before the end of the year.

Even its drug problems, which have long marred Hilo’s reputation, have lessened. A 1999 HONOLULU Magazine article about Hilo (subtitle: "Hilo’s in trouble—hardly anyone wants to talk about it.") said, "Ice—the amphetamine that leads to unpredictable violence—and black-tar heroin—more potent and debilitating than plain smack—have darkened Hilo’s landscape."

By all accounts, that landscape has lightened up considerably since then.

Restaurant Kaikodo offers fine dining in a roomy building that dates to 1908.

Lt. James Sanborn, community policing coordinator of the Hilo Police Department, acknowledges that, in 1995, when a community policing program started in Hilo, "drug crimes were running rampant. The turning point came one day at the former Kïlauea Hotel on Kïlauea Avenue. Now the building is under new ownership and beautifully restored, but in the 1990s, it was widely known by the community to be a pretty active "drug house."

"It was just like a McDonald’s drive-through," says Sanborn. "People would drive up, other people would come out [to make the sale] and then drive off."

The U.S. Attorney General’s office, the U.S. Marshall’s office, the police department’s vice squad and the patrol squad attacked the problem. They raided the house and closed it down in 1997.

Nine years later, many crime rates are down and, according to Sanborn, hard drugs are no longer the big problem they used to be downtown According to Hilo police, between 2003 and 2005, violent crime cases in downtown Hilo have declined almost 12 percent, though property crime cases are up 25 percent. Meanwhile, Hilo police are pursuing four times as many drug cases. Says Sanborn, "The data is one thing and what the community is seeing is another thing. I think the upward swing between 2003 and 2005 has to do with more enforcement in the area."

The police department, he says, sees mostly lighter issues now. "It’s more the liquor," says Sanborn, "and that’s all connected to the homeless situation. Drinking, acting up, disorderly conduct."

There is an occasional prostitution sting, and what Sanborn refers to as a "handful" of homeless people who reject assistance.

But overall, police and downtown business owners agree that downtown Hilo is a much safer place than it was 10 years ago.

Mark McGuffie, executive director of the Hawai’i Island Economic Development board, says there’s been a "movement of change" taking place in downtown Hilo for the past five years or so. "When people see changes happening," he says, "there’s a likelihood of attracting more new investment."

Shree Gopal Shrestha, owner of the Kathmandu Trading Company. Originally from Nepal, he sells Tibetan antique furniture and Thanka (Buddhist paintings).

And in downtown Hilo they have definitely been "jumping on."

Alice Moon, who was born and raised in Hilo, is a special events planner with an office downtown. She speculates that some of the changes are due to her generation, "the Baby Boomers, who are disenfranchised by the corporate world and the ‘Big Box’ tendencies. We’re looking to go back to our roots," she says. "Where is the history, the culture? Where is the sociological interaction?"

Downtown Hilo has history, culture and sociological interaction in spades.

Prior to Hawai’i’s late-18th-century contact with Westerners, the sometimes-raging Wailuku River, at the current downtown’s northern end, was a trading place. People brought the produce they grew in the rich, upland soil of Hamakua, such as kalo (taro), ‘uala (sweet potato) and ‘ulu (breadfruit), to the river, where they bartered for fish and other fresh ocean bounty gathered by people living on the Hilo side of the river. When the river was high, farmers shouted across the rushing waters to arrange their trades with the fishermen, then each scrambled to a boulder in the middle of the river to exchange goods.

Two Christian missionaries, David B. Lyman and Titus Coan, who arrived in Hilo in 1832, helped establish Hilo as a sizable town. By 1838, two-thirds of the greater area’s population had moved to Hilo to join the Reverend Coan’s "Great Revival," leaving nearby villages deserted.

Next came sugar and sugar plantations, railroads to transport cane and railroad stations. Hilo’s station sat at the Hamakua end of the town, near the Wailuku River. Around this time, Hilo saw explorers, whalers, traders and early tourists who wanted to visit the volcano. By 1900, the town was a commercial center.

But in 1946, and again in 1960, destructive tsunamis roared up from Hilo Bay and seriously damaged the downtown area. These forces of nature are responsible for the green park land near the water, and the sweeping bay view one gets from downtown Hilo—ramshackle shops that had previously stood closer to the bay were devastated, or removed during the resulting cleanup, and were not rebuilt.

A shopper eyes a crop of homegrown surfboards at Hilo’s Farmers’ Market.

Since the last Big Island sugar plantation closed in 1995, diversified agriculture has stepped into the economic void. Many of the products grown on the island—Mark McGuffie says there are about 130 types of tropical fruit alone—find their way to the downtown Hilo Farmers’ Market.

Although in some ways the town is thriving, downtown business owners still face some considerable frustrations. Many say that restrictive Planning Department requirements are keeping downtown Hilo from being what it could be.

The Farmers’ Market, for instance, has been in its "temporary" digs, plastic tarps on poles stuck into gravel, for more than 15 years now. It gets soggy there when Hilo’s rains pour down, so owner Keith De La Cruz plans to build a three-story Farmers’ Market structure on its present site at the corner of Kamehameha Avenue and Mamo Street.

But De La Cruz points out that, because downtown Hilo stands in a Special Management Area—a flood zone area and tsunami inundation zone—County Planning Department requirements state his building has to be 19 feet off the ground, with either no walls on the ground floor or walls that break away in a tsunami.

A friendly beekeeper offers Kalapana honey at Hilo’s downtown Farmers’ Market.

"The town’s been hit twice by a tsunami," he says, "and they anticipate another one. I’m building to the code, because I think that might help when the tsunami comes." He plans to have vendors on the open ground floor, more vendors and a semi-enclosed food court and eating area on the second floor, and residential units up top. "For our particular case it works out well," he says. "It depends on what kind of use you’re planning."

Still, he says he’d prefer not to deal with the building restrictions that come with living in a tsunami zone. And a surprising number of downtown business owners echo that sentiment. Mermel, of the Fireplace and Home Center, perhaps explains it best: "Business owners are entrepreneurs; we’re risk takers."

De La Cruz adds, "I’ve also been an advocate for a tax credit for businesses in the tsunami zone, because we have to pay extra for flood insurance. We’re required to do more than is required in other zones, such as building up higher. And we’re unable to get some types of business insurance. We can’t operate under normal circumstances in a tsunami zone; there are additional costs we need to bear."

Karyl Franks, vice president of downtown Hilo’s Koehnen’s Interiors, says, "I’d love to see them take that whole tsunami zone garbage and throw it out the window. I once had a very wise man tell me that being raised in Hilo was like living on the edge. If Madame Pele doesn’t get you [with an eruption], the ocean will come and swallow you up. It’s 50/50, I think. It’s just a risk you have to take."

Neil Erickson, a Hilo architect who works with downtown building owners and owns a couple of buildings there himself, agrees there need to be exemptions from some of the rules—not only tsunami-related—which, he says, are holding historic downtown Hilo back from what it could be.

"In some ways," he says, "we’ve condemned downtown by the ways the rules are written." As an example, he cites a Planning Department restriction stating one can only improve 50 percent of a building’s appraised value per year.

If there’s another tsunami, he says, "I think downtown is going to be gone anyway." In the meantime, he says, renovations will only make the area safer.

Fisherman casting their nets from Queen Lili’uokalani Gardens. The garden, on Banyan Drive, was built in the early 1900s.

Mermel agrees about the need to make it easier to repair or renovate old buildings. "One thing I’m really concerned about," he says, "is fire. That would be our downtown in one fell swoop. All the wooden buildings, and older buildings with wiring that’s out of date; how could the county cooperate to ease some of the building restrictions?" He talks about how there are always other conditions when you try to do work on a building downtown.

"Taxes go up significantly," he says, "or, if you want to do the wiring, you have to do the plumbing, too. There needs to be a willingness to make it simple."

Erickson stresses that Hilo should also be thinking about a master plan for how the community grows. "Our community group formed," he says, "because people were disgruntled there isn’t more planning."

"You go in and want to work on your building and they slap on tens of thousands of dollars in fines and fees," he says. "They charge the developer for relocating power lines and creating curbs and sidewalks. Look on Kino’ole Street—there are no curbs or sidewalks until you reach the brand-new commercial building."

On a rainy Sunday evening, a movie-lover heads for The Palace Theater, built in 1925. The first owner, Adam C. Baker, was referred to as a "dashing Hawaiian gentleman."

Building restrictions and other complications aside, the Downtown Improvement Association and the active community group EnVision Hilo 2025 have been working behind the scenes to spruce up downtown. Some of their accomplishments: Round, brightly painted planters now stand in front of businesses whose owners have agreed to keep flowers and plants in them. Now there are places to lock up bikes. The Farmers Market has recycling bins. The EnVision Hilo 2025 group has 81 more such "action steps" in the works, ranging from smaller tasks, such as creating additional recycling drop-off points downtown, to grander ones, such as developing community gardens, pocket parks and a Wailuku River walk and park.

Karyl Franks, president of the Downtown Improvement Association, talks about all the "new energy" in the area.

"We need to stay on the crest of that wave and just keep on going," she says. "Our mayor [Harry Kim] has a lot of aloha for Hilo, so that helps. And we’ve had phenomenal cooperation with the utility companies lately. They’ve gone through and removed unnecessary utility poles. We’ve got [the wiring for] streetlights underground from the soccer fields as far as Haili Street. It’s all a step in the right direction. We’re taking little steps, and eventually we’ll get there."

In the meantime, there’s consensus that, even in spite of all its building and renovating restrictions, downtown Hilo is a wonderful place to be, and that it’s recently—markedly—gotten even better. "It’s such a quaint little place," says Franks. She talks about the slower lifestyle, how there aren’t the traffic problems one finds in Honolulu, and about being able to go to work and look out at the bay where sometimes you can see whales playing with their calves.

"It does rain all the time," adds Memel, joking—or not—that he doesn’t want to make Hilo sound too inviting. "Make sure you put that in," he says.

Author’s note: Leslie Lang is a Big Island writer whose book, Exploring Historic Hilo, is due out this fall from Watermark Publishing (a sister company of HONOLULU Magazine’s parent company, PacificBasin Communications). Her most recent article for HONOLULU was "Extra, Extra!," about the Hawaiian Newspaper Project, in November 2005.