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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, December 17, 2001

Mill's smokestack symbol of Waipahu revitalization

By Scott Ishikawa
Advertiser Central OÎahu Writer

WAIPAHU — An area of town that has been in the doldrums since the sugar mill closed six years ago is having an economic renaissance of sorts as the community looks to reclaim some of its plantation heritage.

Old Waipahu shares space with the new as tenants gradually fill a new industrial park near the sugar mill's old smokestack.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Where the mill once stood — much of it torn down in 1998, except for the 170-foot smokestack — the Leeward YMCA now has its headquarters. The three-story, 50,000-square-foot Filipino Community Center is set for completion next door in March. Alex-ander and Baldwin has nine tenants signed for its business/light industrial park Mill Town Center in the rear of the mill site, and a church bought the Arakawa's building down the street in October for $1.5 million.

"It's been pretty slow here since the sugar mill and Arakawa's shut down," said Waipahu Community Association Executive Director Darrlyn Bunda. The 1995 closure of the O'ahu Sugar Co. mill was soon followed by the landmark general store.

"But there's a lot of activity recently. We believe things are on the upswing here."

Bunda's organization hopes to sign a long-term lease this month for the former Bigway Supermarket across from Arakawa's and convert it to a festival marketplace for food and craft vendors. The goal is to have the 14,000-square-foot store renovated and the market running by spring 2003.

"It took a number of years, but things seem to be falling into place," said City Councilman Gary Okino, who helped create the town's revitalization plan as a city planner in 1997.

Bunda and other Waipahu community leaders see the impact as more than economic. The revitalization in the shadow of the old sugar mill smokestack carries significant social implications as well.

"The mill used to be the social gathering place of the town, and I strongly believe — with the smokestack still standing as the town landmark — it will be that way again," said Waipahu Neighborhood Board Chairwoman and YMCA official Annette Yamaguchi.

Businesses along Waipahu Street and Waipahu Depot Road hope the increased business activity will bring back customers after a six-year economic drought. One hopeful sign is that the "Taste of Waipahu" food event last month attracted 6,000 people to the mill area.

"We lost a lot of pedestrian traffic when Arakawa's and Bigway closed," said Tammy Inafuku of Rocky's Coffee Shop. "We wouldn't have gotten through it if wasn't for our longtime customers that keep coming back."

Loss of magnetism

The mill has been the town gathering place throughout Waipahu's 103-year history. Not only businesses but many social events were centered around the Oahu Sugar Co. mill, such as community parades and carnivals.

In its heyday, in 1939, the mill was the area's largest employer, with 2,400 workers. Even at 850 employees in 1959, it still boasted the largest payroll in Leeward O'ahu.

The closing of the mill hurt not only employees and their families, but also many of the older, locally owned Waipahu businesses.

And while the population of the area has increased to 55,000 with the development of Village Park, Waikele and Royal Kunia, many residents have turned away from the mom-and-pop plantation stores, flocking instead to newer shopping centers in Waikele and Costco and Wal-Mart stores that sprouted in Central O'ahu during the 1990s.

"Those giant shopping centers, including Waikele, really hurt us," Okino said.

Community leaders reacted by creating a vision plan for the old Waipahu business district. One idea was to create a business park at the mill site. After a slow start, nine clients have signed on at Mill Town Center since 1999.

The latest property buyer, Fujifilm, broke ground at the park recently for a 55,000-square-foot processing plant/warehouse. The facility, expected to be ready by August, will house 75 employees.

A&B project manager Rick Stack hopes that will encourage more businesses to base their operations here. Stack said 15 of the 23 lots in the business park's first phase are sold. Fujifilm will be part of the park's second phase, which has 32 lots totaling 23 acres.

"There is momentum now in this area," Stack said. "Industrial parks don't fill out overnight, but the fact that we're starting the second phase of the Mill Town Center is a good sign. I don't know if Fujifilm would have committed two, three years ago to moving out here."

Yamaguchi said the YMCA plans to build a full facility at the mill site consisting of a swimming pool, play courts, meeting rooms and a gymnasium.

"We're still seeking funding, but it's something we would want to see done within the next three to five years," Yamaguchi said. "The Fil-Com Center next door will also have meeting and classrooms, so even more we hope the mill becomes the gathering place."

Other recent activity includes the Waipahu Samoa Seventh-day Adventist Church's $1.5 million purchase of the Arakawa's property in October. Pastor Alele Moaga said the church plans to improve the interior, but will preserve the historical exterior.

Need more flash

Keith Sienkiewicz, a 20-year-employee of Waipahu Bicycle & Fishing Supply, said he believes the town's industrial appearance also needs to be improved to bring shoppers back.

"We're competing against the newer shopping centers in the area," he said. "The younger crowds today are attracted to the flashier-type places."

Landscaping along Waipahu's main drag, Farrington Highway, should spruce up the town's appearance. State Sen. Cal Kawamoto said a long-anticipated $5 million project to landscape Farrington should start by May and be finished by September.

Bunda said other possible improvements include extending a walkway along Kapakahi Stream to connect Hawai'i's Plantation Village with businesses along Waipahu Depot Road.

"The sidewalk could bring visitors from the plantation village to shop around afterward in the center of town," she said. "Right now you can't get from point A to point B without walking along the roadside."

Meanwhile, Bunda hopes renovations to the festival market can begin in July. The facility will hold about 35 booths and kiosks for vendors and emerging entrepreneurs.

"Because Waipahu has such a diverse population, we're looking to showcase a variety of ethnic and cultural food and craft wares," Bunda said. "We want to have local entertainment there. There's storage for refrigeration, old meat hooks from the butcher section, so maybe we could display those large cuts of meat, just like the old days."

Organizers of the inaugural "Taste of Waipahu" plan to make it an annual event.

"Hopefully by then some of these planned projects will be in place and running," Bunda said. "When you see empty storefronts, that's when people trash it and stay away. When it's full of activity, people feel safer and they want to stop to browse and shop."

Reach Scott Ishikawa at sishikawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.