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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Lenders' agreement saves Japanese Cultural Center

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Leaders of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i today are taking a New Year's holiday to celebrate their successful whirlwind campaign to emerge from under the center's crushing debt, but tomorrow they will begin the process of planning for its long-term survival.

Colbert Matsumoto of the Committee to Save the Center announced yesterday that more than $6 million has been raised to repay the debts of the Japanese Cultural Center.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Susan Kodani, the center's president and executive director, said she gave a great "sigh of relief" late yesterday morning, when 11th-hour discussions with bankers ended in an agreement giving the embattled Mo'ili'ili center a new lease on life.

In the agreement struck with the lenders — Central Pacific Bank, City Bank, Bank of Hawaii and First Hawaiian Bank — the center was given until Jan. 31 to settle its $9 million debt.

The Committee to Save the Center, an ad hoc group formed to run the fund-raising campaign, came to the meeting armed with $6 million raised in 47 days. It sealed the agreement by handing over a $2 million check on the spot, along with the pledge to pay an additional $5.5 million, in installments, by the end of this month.

That will represent full repayment of the loan's principal, said Colbert Matsumoto, committee chairman. The lending institutions agreed to forgive the remaining $1.5 million of debt — interest payments on the loan.

Matsumoto said he's not worried about raising enough money by month's end to make the final payments.

"Because of the overwhelming response we have received from the public, we feel confident that we will be able to raise the money," he said. "We thank the banks immensely for what they have done. We will forever have a debt of gratitude to the banks for their patience they have shown us."

Among the fund-raising efforts being planned is the Japanese New Year's Festival set for Jan. 12.

Beyond meeting the current schedule of payments, Kodani acknowledged that the center's board of directors will have to take a longer view on how to keep the center thriving — and that it's no small task.

"I think it's been so breathtaking what's happened in the last few days that it's hard for me to step back and understand all the implications," Kodani said.

But Kodani said he felt certain that the to-do list will include finding ways to improve efficiency of operations and to revamp programs to make them appealing to a broader sector of the community.

Four lending institutions agreed to forgive $1.5 million of the $9 million debt the Mo'ili'ili center owed for an expansion completed in 1994.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

One way to make the center more appealing, she said, is to have the facility work as a unified program; people who attend a function in its banquet rooms could be drawn into the other aspects of the center. The center is equipped with a martial arts dojo, a teahouse, a gallery and a central courtyard, all of which combine to convey a sense of culture and history, Kodani said.

"Even people who just walk through the courtyard as a shortcut should leave with a sense that they had visited the Japanese Cultural Center," she said. "Of the people who drive by, 99.9 percent don't even know that this is the Japanese Cultural Center."

Matsumoto acknowledged that varied fund-raising strategies will have to be explored to fend off future financial problems. The center hopes to expand its membership, attracting a broader range of participants and plans to involve people of a broader age range in decision-making.

"We need to have programs that appeal to a cross section," he said. "The community really needs to understand that the center isn't for only Japanese people. It was built to service the entire community."

On Dec. 19, the campaign got a boost when Gov. Linda Lingle signed on as an honorary chairperson. Major gifts in the 6-week-old campaign have included $500,000 from Makiki Japanese Language School and two $250,000 gifts, from City Bank and Island Insurance. More than 7,000 supporters, from the Mainland as well as Hawai'i, have pledged donations, large and small.

Before the committee embarked on its last-ditch effort to salvage the center, New Hope Christian Fellowship, one of the state's largest churches, had been willing to pay $11 million, but the plan failed to get sufficient support from some of the center's members.

The center's history dates to 1986, when the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce developed the original plan and gave its leasehold interest of 57,000 square feet of property to the nonprofit Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i. The organization agreed to purchase the property from Bishop Estate in 1989.

The center's debt stems from the plan to put up a second building on the property, only 11 months after construction of the $4 million first-phase office building was completed in August 1991. Work on the expansion, which includes a museum, resource center, banquet hall and 250 parking stalls, began in July 1992 and was completed in April 1994 at a cost of $10.8 million using a 20-year mortgage financed by the four banks.

Yesterday, it was difficult to focus on the challenges ahead when the simple fact of survival left everyone giddy with relief and gratitude. Committee member Wayne Miyao prefaced the announcement with an observation about symbolic significance of numbers: He compared the success of the 47-day fund-raising effort to the fabled tale of the 47 ronin, Japanese samurai who fought an uphill battle to vanquish their enemies.

"People said, 'You're crazy, trying to do this in 47 days,' " he said with a laugh.

What makes everyone happy, Kodani said, is the opportunity to continue telling the story of the Japanese community through the center.

"Hawai'i is made up of all these different stories, and the history of the Japanese and their contributions to making Hawai'i what it is today needs to be told," she said.

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or call 525-8053.