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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, February 11, 2002

Hilo reaches for the stars

By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — Planning is moving ahead for a $28 million, high-tech exhibition center and planetarium in Hilo focusing on modern astronomy, ancient Polynesian voyaging and space exploration.

The Mauna Kea Astronomy Education Center is expected to draw 250,000 visitors annually when it opens in three years. It is the brainchild of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawai'i, who secured federal financing for the project.

The center will be on a 9.1-acre site in the University Technology Park, across the street from the Gemini and Cal Tech observatory headquarters.

Since George Jacob became project director in August, the effort has quickly moved forward with the requests for proposals issued for concept, design, planning and construction work.

Walter Steiger, an educator and researcher who served briefly as interim co-director of the center before Jacob was hired, said he is hopeful "this will make up for lost time."

Steiger sees the astronomy education center as focusing on the significance of the research into space and the important Native Hawaiian cultural elements that he said scientists are beginning to appreciate more. He said Jacob "absolutely knows what he is doing."

Jacob is a Canadian citizen who previously worked with the Smithsonian Institution and most recently was at the Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Ore. He said he took a pay cut to come to Hilo because of what he sees as a "challenging and unique project." Jacob promises the center will "be academically sound and visually stunning."

He has organized a 24-member advisory group comprising Hawaiian elders, educators and scientists.

Larry Kimura, a Hawaiian language faculty member at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo, has been appointed to oversee the Hawaiian content in the exhibition and planetarium center.

Aware of conflicts between scientists and Native Hawaiians over use of Mauna Kea, Kimura said the "two have to come together so they can be complementary. The center could be the starting point."

With the help of fiberoptic cable connections to the Mauna Kea observatories, visitors to the new astronomy education center will be able to view in real time what is happening out in space.

The planetarium component is seen as a potential boon for Hilo, where tourists might add an extra day to their itinerary to go through the center. Jacob said the visitor experience will benefit from state-of-the-art, theater-quality audio-visual features.

As the planning continues, Jacob is assembling a staff of 12. His office is due to move next month into downtown Hilo's historic Volcano Building on Waianuenue Avenue.

Jacobs said an educational kit to be used by schoolchildren is in the creative stage.