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By Alex Achimore

Saturday, November 25, 2000

Med center:
A good fit in Kakaako

THE possibility of a new campus for the University of Hawaii's John A. Burns Medical School in the makai area of Kakaako is particularly exciting. Such a development could do far more than rejuvenate the medical school.

Today, universities have the potential of stimulating economic growth in new, high-value industries by attracting private companies that feed off a university's research and development activities.

If cards are played right, building a new medical campus in Kakaako could finally lead Hawaii's economy in a new direction -- establishing an internationally recognized health and wellness industry centered in a new research park built around the medical school.

The new medical/research center could bring together a number of concepts that have been floated in the last decade but have yet to coalesce into a concrete plan.

Many have recognized Hawaii's international image as a place of great weather and fit people, and wondered how to convert that into a health and wellness industry.

This state has also struggled with the question of best use for the 200-plus acres of publicly owned land known as the Kakaako makai area, prime waterfront land in central Honolulu. Some of it is ceded, some not.

While Hawaii's becoming some kind of health-care destination has been talked about for some time, it has been difficult to find a marketable niche.

Several medical centers established themselves long ago in the high intervention health services such as surgery, organ transplants and cancer treatment. It is tough to compete with a Stanford Medical Center or University of Texas, which draws the wealthy from all over the world for extraordinary treatment.

On the other hand, the prevention of disease and mitigation of aging through knowledge of diet, exercise, physical therapy, mental health and spiritualism is a relatively wide open field. It has tremendous potential, given the amount of middle-class and middle-aged baby boomers. This may be Hawaii's niche opportunity.

By choosing to further the knowledge in health and wellness, the UH medical school could become the keystone in a new economic development strategy for Hawaii and an international player in a growing industry.

As the anchor tenant in a new development, with sufficient land to expand in such a spectacular and well-located site, UH could attract a number of private research entities, perhaps funded by international pharmaceutical companies eager to stay abreast of this growing field.

The result: new investment in Hawaii, creating well-paying jobs that depend on proximity to UH and cannot be transferred elsewhere.

This centralized knowledge bank could also seed the development of new therapeutic centers at existing hospitality sites around the islands, allowing the economic benefits to be widely shared and essentially creating new, high-expenditure tourism products.

There are several key considerations on the formation of a new research center anchored by the medical school:

Bullet It should be neither a government project nor a private development. As with the proposed aquarium, a dynamic new group of civic and business leaders should be assembled to act as master developer and chartered as a private, non-profit entity.

Bullet Government's role should remain custodial and regulatory. For example, the Hawaii Community Development Authority should continue to regulate land use and density and be a good landlord looking out for the public's interest.

Bullet Hawaii's multiplicity of cultures can give its pursuit of health and wellness an edge over the competition. Many others already recognize the economic opportunities in health and wellness. For example, in Marin County, just north of San Francisco and one of the richest communities in the world, there is a private foundation with a substantial endowment devoted to aging.

Bullet Hawaiian traditional medicine and spiritualism, as well as Hawaii's solid links to traditional Asian healing practices, can impart special resources to an effort that will be difficult to duplicate by competing entities. In addition, because the makai area between the Waterfront Park and Honolulu Harbor is ceded land, it would be appropriate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to participate in this project, both by engaging the talents of Hawaiians and ensuring a proper share of the benefits.

A new medical/research center anchored by the UH Medical School may be the spark that the makai area has always needed to achieve the grand vision of redevelopment and propel Hawaii into the knowledge economy. It can create an extraordinary place that will feed our emotional needs for a great home along with functional needs for a vibrant economy.

Alex Achimore, an architect and urban planner,
was a planning director for the HCDA from 1995-98. Later he consulted
for one of the teams vying for development rights in the makai area.
He now lives in Davis, Calif., and manages development projects
for the University of California.

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