JCC hopes
to bank on

The center remains
about $3 million short
of its debt obligations

By Mary Vorsino

Members of a committee to save the debt-ridden Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii from foreclosure are unsure whether the $6 million in donations they have collected so far will be enough.

The deadline to pay off the center's $9 million debt is tomorrow, but officials are hoping to negotiate an extension.

The debt is owed to Bank of Hawaii, First Hawaiian Bank, Central Pacific Bank and City Bank.

A fundraising campaign to save the center's Moiliili headquarters started early last month.

"We feel optimistic as to what the future holds," said Colbert Matsumoto, chairman of the Committee to Save the Center. "We're very encouraged by the response that we've received to date. It demonstrates that there's a real strong sentiment out there."

The debt was accumulated through construction and development of the center. To avert a similar crisis in the future, the center's board is re-envisioning its role in the community.

"We need to be more than just a physical center," said Save the Center member Walter Tagawa.

"We need to do a makeover."

Tagawa said some of the donors suggested the center become less of an "elite club" catering "to only a select group of people" and move toward becoming a hub of culturally relevant activity.

Save the Center committee member Francis Sogi said he thinks the banks will acknowledge their efforts and trust the center will work toward financial stability.

"The future will be quite different," he said. "I think everyone now understands what the problems are."

Tagawa said the center must be the "heart and soul of the Japanese community" or people would not have responded so quickly and so overwhelmingly to the plea for funds.

Days after the center announced it was millions in debt, donations poured in from all over the world, said Tagawa.

By Saturday, 4,000 donors had contributed.

The largest donation, $500,000, came from the Makiki Japanese Language School. The smallest, 49 cents, came from a 7-year-old Kikaida fan.

Glenn Masunaga, chairman of the Makiki Japanese Language School, said the school's board decided to give the money -- accrued when the 90-year-old school closed recently and its land was sold -- to the center because of its potential benefit to young people.

Masunaga said he hopes the center, if it does survive, becomes "a little bit more active" in the community "to try to teach some language and culture, some of the good things about Japanese culture."

But he added that he could not think of a better place to donate the money.

Because of the "tidal wave" response from the community, the center's governing board is more accountable to its donors than in years past, Tagawa said. "We're hoping to really make this a center, not just a monument," he said.

Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii

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