Hilo Farmers Market upgrade plagued by more delays

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Women browse the Hilo Farmers Market for fruits and vegetables on Tuesday.

Oft-delayed improvements at Hilo Farmers Market have hit yet another wall — literally.

In January, it was reported that completion of a permanent canopy for the produce side of the market, which is at the corner of Kamehameha Avenue and Mamo Street, would take place by summer.

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But according to Barett Otani, an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, amended plans had to be submitted for the project’s building permit after cost estimates for a concrete firewall between the market and Reuben’s Mexican Food came in way over projections.

“A firewall to meet the standards of the code would cost over six figures,” Otani said Tuesday. “The resubmittal involves a 10-foot setback between the buildings. If you build a firewall, you have more usable space, because you can move next to the adjoining property. Without the firewall, you have to shrink your usable space, because you have to allow for the setback.”

According to Otani, estimates for firewall construction were between $140,000 and $150,000 — cost prohibitive for a project with an estimated total price tag of about $400,000. Otani said he thinks the new permit can be issued “hopefully, in a couple of weeks or so.”

Construction of the canopy and two others on the opposite side of Mamo Street has been pushed back numerous times. The market is in a tsunami inundation zone, which means it requires a Special Management Area permit.

“We’re hoping to start real soon, I’d say within the next month. And as far as completion time, before the holidays,” said Keith De La Cruz, owner and manager of the popular downtown Hilo market. “There hasn’t been anything new built in downtown Hilo in over 50 years, so as we go through this process, there are new things that come up that haven’t been brought up before.

“The code has changed over the years. So I’m encouraged and I’m positive we’re going to get this done. We’re trying to move through each issue that comes up. … And we’re making progress.”

De La Cruz said the COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated matters, especially from an economic standpoint.

“Times are challenging right now, I think, for us and for everyone,” he said. “In the beginning, I think 70% of our business dropped. We have been slowly coming back, but very slow. And the COVID spikes and whatever … mandates the governor and the state has done to slow down the tourist industry definitely affects our business. So I’m hoping we can come up with some solutions to help mitigate and work out safety, as well as keep our economy going.”

Prior to the pandemic, the market was a popular destination for visitors as well as locals, with the market providing a wide array of tropical fruits, vegetables and value-added agricultural products not readily available on the mainland, as well as arts and crafts. In addition, it’s listed in almost all tourist guide books and has been featured on several national cable TV travel shows.

With the removal of the firewall from the plans, a fire hydrant has to be installed on the produce side, according to Otani. He said there had been a hydrant there at one point, but it had been removed by the county.

Otani said the fire department is doing tests of the water lines on site to ensure there is proper pressure and water flow available to reinstall the hydrant without additional work.

The improvement project has been on-again, off-again since March 17, 2008.

On March 16, 2018, a five-year extension of a five-year SMA permit for the project expired without a permanent structure being built, despite several sets of plans, each one scaled back from the previous set.

At that point, the county sent De La Cruz a letter saying he’d reached the deadline to complete the permanent structure. The letter said the market, which at that time was sheltered by tarps, was in violation of the county’s zoning, building and fire codes and would be fined $1,000 a day for each of the parcels the market occupies for each day violations continued to occur.

Otani told the Tribune-Herald last August the fines, which had reached $212,000, were halted when the last set of plans were submitted. The county then halved the fines to $106,000, and suspended $81,000 of that total, leaving De La Cruz with $25,000 in fines still on the books.

“The mayor wants this to happen, and sooner rather than later,” Otani said. “Boots on the ground, just get this thing going because it’s been a long-running issue. There have been a lot of hurdles, but we’re almost there.

“We wish the process could be a little bit faster, and I know we missed some deadlines, but with the COVID thing happening, a lot of meetings can be held online. It’s kind of the norm now. Communication is good. There’s accountability and there’s follow-up, so that should help getting this through the final hurdle.”

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Added De La Cruz, “We’re taking small steps, but we’re moving forward. To me, that’s the important part.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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