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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 5, 2003

Lingle won't release funds to purchase Paradise Park

By James Gonser
Advertiser Staff Writer

The University of Hawai'i's purchase of Paradise Park, and dreams of creating a research center to coordinate state, federal and private efforts to preserve Pacific island ecosystems appear to be at a dead end because Gov. Linda Lingle has decided to allow state financing for the project to lapse.

The Legislature set aside $5.5 million in general obligation bonds for the Pacific Center for Ecosystem Science center project in 2002, but the bill was left unsigned by former Gov. Ben Cayetano. The financing will lapse June 30 unless action is taken.

Lingle has not signed the bill either and also may not include the money in her next annual budget request, effectively killing the project.

The "$5.5 million was appropriated by the Legislature for the acquisition and development of Paradise Park," said Jan Yokota, the UH director of capital improvements. "However, the funds are not currently available. Without the appropriation, the university would not be in a position to negotiate the acquisition."

Georgina Kawamura, director of the state Department of Budget and Finance, said the governor has decided not to release the appropriation to purchase the land.

"We are looking down the road for the future," Kawamura said. "Once you purchase land, then it's buying new facilities, then it's programs and all the operations that need to go in it takes more money. Maintenance of the facility takes more money. The state is not fiscally able to make those kinds of commitments."

Rep. Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa) said the Legislature could put the money back into the budget. But if the sale falls through, it would be a great loss for the university and the state, he said.

"What is the reason to let it lapse?" Caldwell said. "Here is a way to get a bunch of money into our state in tropical agriculture from private foundation, and we are going to lose it because we couldn't get the (state) money."

Paradise Park is a former tourist-oriented, exotic-bird exhibit and botanical garden that was operated by the Wong family in the back of Manoa Valley. The park opened to the public in 1968 and closed in 1994.

UH wants to buy the 152-acre parcel, which is owned by the Roman Catholic Church. The property borders the Lyon Arboretum, city Board of Water Supply land, and the state's Manoa Falls hiking trail.

Since the park closed, it has been targeted for condemnation by the city, which proposed converting it to a public park, and considered for purchase by numerous private investors as well as the university.

Kenneth Kaneshiro, director of the UH Center for Conservation Research and Training, said a university group met with Lingle last summer to explain the project in hopes of persuading her to release the money.

"Before we even walked in her door and introduced ourselves, she said, 'I don't have any money,' " Kaneshiro said. "But by the time we were through explaining our vision ... she was very interested. The fact that we had already received a $9 million (National Science Foundation) grant really raised the priority of Paradise Park much higher than what was on her radar screen. The potential for even more NSF funding is there if was can get Paradise Park."

Darryl Wong, whose family holds a long-term lease on the Paradise Park property with the Catholic Church, acknowledged that another group is now moving forward with plans to use the park. A nonprofit group called the Hawai'i Cultural Preservation Council wants to create a cultural center at the park that will feature Hawaiian history, language, legends, healing, hula, navigation, canoe building, fishing and farming, tattooing and arts and crafts.

Solomon Nalua'I, board chairman of the group, said they would not attempt to purchase the property, but work with the Wong family to run the cultural center. Nalua'I said time has expired on the UH proposal with Wong, so they are moving forward with their plans although "nothing is signed."

"We've been working with (Wong) for several years, since before the UH made their offer to develop the park," Nalua'I said. "We are a small nonprofit organization and every time there was an offer to buy, he would pursue that. He went through about half dozen offers and always came back to us."

The group is holding a fundraiser at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Coral Ballroom Dec. 12 to raise planning money for the cultural center, which they hope to open next summer.

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.