'Incubator' for small businesses in works
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Chinatown was born out of dreams of a better life and a brighter future for countless immigrants who got by day to day on little more than a strong work ethic and hope.
So what better place, asks Tin Myaing Thein, than a century-old, red brick building on North King Street to showcase the wares of low-income "micro-entrepreneurs" looking to earn their way out of poverty?
"This is the place to be," says Thein, executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center, as she crouches under scaffolding in the future site of her so-called "retail incubator." It will aim to jump-start small businesses for people who have a marketable food product or handicraft but no access to startup funds.
"Chinatown has traditionally been a place where immigrants come," she says. "It was very important for us to be here."
The building site, 83 N. King St., is now undergoing work on its foundation and termite-eaten floorboards. When it opens in the fall, the incubator — based on similar projects on the Mainland, under a model championed by the National Business Incubation Association — will be the first of its kind in the Islands.
Initially, it will house between 10 and 12 kiosks, each selling different food products and handicrafts. After completion of a second phase of building renovation, which will start in December, more wares are to be sold.
A cafe with seating and kitchen equipment also will be installed. The building's second story is expected to be a meeting hall, while offices will be on the third floor.
In addition to securing space to sell products, incubator participants will be provided with advice on marketing, packaging goods and expanding their businesses.
The Pacific Gateway Center already operates a "kitchen incubator," which it opened in 2000 to those interested in starting catering businesses or food product lines. The site, on 'Umi Street, features a state Health Department-certified kitchen.
Some 80 low-income people have rented time at the kitchen for a nominal rate, and four of those businesses have "grown so big they no longer need us," Thein said.
Many of those who use the kitchen sell their products at farmers' markets or product shows, or out of their own homes. Kitchen incubator participant Nixon Dabalos operates lunch wagons.
Dabalos, who recently worked as a cook at Saint Louis School and Chaminade University of Honolulu, joined up with the center in January. He wanted to open a restaurant but didn't have any startup money or access to credit.
His lunch wagon, called Paper Plate Hawai'i, does business in front of Dole Cannery. He also does catering through the incubator kitchen and has hired three employees. "At least I can say it's mine," he said. "It's a little hard, but it's my business."
Thein said the success of the kitchen incubator prompted Pacific Gateway to try the retail project.
The nonprofit group also runs other programs to help immigrants or low-income individuals get into business, and offers small loans and business counseling. Pacific Gateway maintains that many low-income people and immigrants have marketable skills but are held back by a lack of education and job experience, or language barriers.
Pacific Gateway purchased the North King Street building for $1.1 million in 2003. The 4,155-square-foot structure is listed on the state's Historic Register, and in past decades had housed a produce market, Goodwill Industries of Hawaii and a retail store.
Guy Dobias, operations manager with contractor Starcom Builders, said much of the building's foundation and structure is unsound — a discovery that meant the $1.5 million renovation of the store would center more on what's behind the walls and under the floors than what customers will see.
More costs were added when Dobias, during a survey of flooring, found World War I-era ordnance under the building. A bomb squad handed the ordnance over to the Army. A munitions expert is now required to be on-site whenever work is under way, Dobias said.
The site work, Dobias said, also has turned up square, handmade nails and spikes from the early 1900s, wiring in porcelain tubes, what appears to be a bone fish hook, old Hawaiian games and shards of antique pots. In addition, workers digging under the building found volcanic ash, apparently from an eruption millions of years ago on Maui.
Thein said all of the artifacts found during the renovation, along with a written history of the building, will be showcased in the incubator's retail area.
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.