Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024|
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Visitors look at the fruit and flowers available at the Hilo Farmer's Market Tuesday in downtown Hilo.
A man rides past a homeless camp Tuesday in a graffiti-filled doorway near Spencer Health and Fitness Center in downtown Hilo.
After years of fading relevance, the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association is being resurrected with new leadership.
Following the recent failure of a County Council proposal to establish a Business Improvement District for downtown Hilo, businesswoman Lorraine Shin announced in July that she would revive the DIA, an organization that has been largely defunct for years, in an effort to make the area safer and more attractive.
That plan is close to fruition, Shin told the Tribune-Herald on Monday.
“We believe downtown is the heartbeat of Hilo,” said Shin, interim president of the DIA. “We want to bring people back to downtown.”
After months of discussion regarding the merits of a Business Improvement District, Shin said business owners became alive to the possibilities of a collaborative solution to the problems facing downtown Hilo.
The updated DIA, she said, would fulfill many of the same goals as the BID — beautification, seasonal events, etc. — without involving the proposed property assessments that made the BID a nonstarter for many business owners.
Nancy Cabral, president of Day-Lum Rentals and Management and member of the updated DIA, said one of the advantages of the BID model is that it would be recognized within the county code, while the DIA, as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit, would not be, and the county would have no legal obligation to recognize or consult with the association.
“But all these businesses, we represent a pretty sizable tax bloc,” Cabral said. “I would hope the county would be willing to work with us.”
Shin said she and several other like-minded Hilo business owners have had regular meetings with each other and other parties, including Mayor Mitch Roth, about the area’s challenges — particularly, the homeless problem, a subject to which all conversations about the BID inevitably circled back.
Cabral said the Hawaii Police Department is not able to force homeless people to move unless they are causing a disturbance, which has led to the common sight of people sleeping on sidewalks in front of businesses.
Shin said the DIA has discussed with Hope Services Hawaii and the Salvation Army the possibility of creating a housing solution near downtown Hilo that would be a “safe haven” where people who need help could get it.
Meanwhile, Shin also said she wants to see the DIA host regular seasonal events to make the area more attractive. She said the DIA has plans for a Halloween event in Kalakaua Park — involving a pumpkin patch, haunted house and possibly hayrides — as well as plans for more cohesive Christmas theming in December.
“We want to have Santa in downtown Hilo,” Shin said.
Luana Neff, co-owner of Kamehameha Avenue shop Hawaiian Force, said the area needs an organization that can “make downtown look good.”
“We have a beautiful town, should be doing things for all four seasons, and things for like Merrie Monarch month,” Neff said. “Instead, people come here and see the place looking busted up.”
Neff added that the homeless problem has run unchecked for years, and that other problems, including frequent traffic gridlock associated with the neighboring Connections Public Charter School in the Kress Building, need to be addressed by an organization like the DIA.
At the same time, Neff lamented that the previous incarnation of the DIA lost momentum and engagement over the last decade, with the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding economic downturn being the last nail in the organization’s coffin.
Before, she said, the DIA thrived under the leadership of Executive Director Alice Moon, who stepped down in 2014 and passed away a year later — and, Neff said, almost single-handedly carried the association during her tenure.
“We need another Alice,” Neff said.
Shin said she is optimistic about the energy in recent meetings, and that DIA membership drives may take place in the near future.
The association also has support from the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce. Shin and other members met with HICC leadership last week, and Executive Director Miles Yoshioka said Monday that he was impressed by their conversation.
“It was nice to see. We were all very enthused to see Lorraine’s focus,” Yoshioka said. “I think we will be supporting them.”
“It’s going to be a rebirth,” Shin said. “A new beginning for downtown Hilo. The energy is there.”
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