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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, November 23, 2002

City says it will buy mill site in 'Aiea

By Scott Ishikawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

'Aiea's plantation past appears to be preserved for future generations, with the announcement yesterday that the city will buy the land under the former 'Aiea Sugar Mill.

It was a victory in the five-year struggle by area residents to preserve the mill site. The city plans to build a community center that will document the area's sugar plantation history.

The city reached an agreement with the landowner, Bank of Hawaii, to purchase 6.8 acres of the former mill site for $8.9 million. The sale agreement, signed Nov. 12, is in the process of closing.

About half the site will be developed as an 'Aiea Town Center, with the rest set aside for future housing for the elderly.

"I am pleased that we have reached an agreement that benefits the community, especially the residents of historic 'Aiea," Mayor Jeremy Harris said yesterday. "The purchase will allow us to move forward on a number of projects that preserve Aiea's heritage and are part of its people's vision for the future."

The agreement alleviates community concerns that the area would end up in industrial use, according to city managing director Ben Lee.

"This has been a long, hard process, but we're glad this deal got done for the community," Lee said.

Residents have been trying to save the former sugar mill site since 1997, when previous landowner Crazy Shirts demolished the 100-year-old C&H Sugar mill and planned to turn the area into a light industrial park.

Claire Tamamoto, who helped spearhead the community movement to preserve the site, was ecstatic over the news.

"I just can't stop smiling now after all the struggles we went through year after year," said Tamamoto, president of the 'Aiea Community Association. "Until it's a done deal, you're always wondering if its ever going to happen."

The community group struggled to keep residents involved when the sugar mill was torn down in 1998.

"Everyone was extremely disappointed when the mill went down, but it got us thinking of ideas for the area," Tamamoto said. "We got a long ways to go, but at least we have time to do something now."

Lee said the city and Bank of Hawaii hope to close the deal by mid-December. An interim park, to occupy the town center parcel until construction dollars are obtained, could be graded and landscaped by next summer if project bids go out on schedule, Lee said.

Crazy Shirts Inc. bought the mill and land underneath C&H Sugar in 1994, in hopes of using the old sugar mill as its company offices. But Crazy Shirts soon faced rising costs to clean up and redevelop the site, and a sluggish economy and an outstanding loan forced the company to unload the 'Aiea property to the Bank of Hawai'i last year.

The land sale between the city and the bank was then delayed for a year when lead and other contaminants were found in the soil. The tainted soil has been removed and state health officials have given their approval to use the land.

City Councilman Gary Okino said he was "elated."

"It's good to have some victories in life; this made the whole effort much more sweet for us," said Okino, who represent the area.

Okino said money for the town center portion of the project may have to come later since the city is facing tough fiscal times. But he said the planned senior housing area could begin soon since community development block grants have been set aside.

"At least we'll have a park for now, which is better than the area being laid in concrete," he said.

Plans for the town center include a daycare or childcare center, a performing arts area, and a media room showcasing the town's plantation heritage. Conceptual designs for the center also reflect the area's past, Lee said.

"We needed this to preserve our history," Tamamoto said. "Some of the kids think that 'Aiea's history began with Pearlridge Center."