Proposals multiplying for Kona campus
UH now has three offers for a permanent community college site
KAILUA-KONA » After two decades of stalled plans and no money, West Hawaii might be inching closer to a real state college campus.
Options to replace the space serving a few hundred students in a former shopping center in increasingly traffic-clogged Kealakekuka have tripled in recent months.
Three sites are now being offered for a second Big Island school to complement and compete with the well-established University of Hawaii-Hilo campus.
In addition to a parcel approved by the University of Hawaii Board of Regents and the community, a developer is offering a long-term temporary home, and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has included space for a campus in its latest plan for the region.
That is all good news for the educationally neglected western side of the Big Island, as the current UH Center, West Hawaii, stretches the definition of a campus.
"The reality is we are offering higher education in rented space that used to be a shopping center," said Kathy Damon, director of the West Hawaii center.
"Everybody does their best," but it is the only facility in the University of Hawaii system that does not have a permanent home, she said.
With an enrollment of 300 to 400 students, the center offers several two-year degrees, as well as video-conferencing and bachelor's and master's degree courses.
The lease agreement is not at issue, Damon said, but the location could be better and a place to call home is critical.
"It's about access," Damon said. "It's been a longtime effort in the community to create a permanent presence."
In 1991 the UH Board of Regents and the community approved a 500-acre site north of Kailua-Kona, just off Queen Kaahumanu Highway. The state land near Kona Airport still is in the process of being transferred to the university, and the state Legislature will then need to find $100 million to start building the school.
In January the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands included space for a campus in its Kealakehe/Laiopua community development plan, near Honokohau Harbor. That plan came as a surprise to many in the community, although it appears to have been received favorably by Mayor Harry Kim's administration. It also calls for state funding.
Then the developers of Palamanui subdivision offered to lease buildings to the college if the County Council approves the nearly $1 billion development. It would include 845 housing units, commercial space, a golf course and 178 acres of parks, including a 65-acre forest preserve.
"We'd be pleased to have the University of Hawaii as tenants for as long as they want to stay," said Hiluhilu Development project consultant Guido Giacometti.
When Hiluhilu representatives pitched their project to the council's Planning Committee last week, it drew several hours of testimony from Kona residents. The committee called for a public hearing in Kona before deciding whether to allow the development to move forward. A date has yet to be set for the hearing.
While some voiced typical concerns -- traffic impacts, affordable housing, water availability and park and open space instead of a private golf course -- many others focused on the college campus.
Rockne Freitas, chancellor for community colleges, said the need is clear, and he would "facilitate anything to bring a two-year campus to West Hawaii."
He noted the regents had already agreed on the 500-acre parcel for a permanent site, and he favors the offer at Palamanui, which borders that parcel.
In turn, with the offer to lease buildings long term to the college, the accompanying infrastructure -- housing, commercial space, roads, water, sewer, power -- would benefit from the future permanent campus.
Palamanui "is where all of our focus is at this time," Freitas said, adding that he still is studying the Home Lands proposal before he presents it to the regents.
"As new information comes along, it is my job to send it up the flagpole to see what (the Board of Regents) want to do with it," Freitas said.