Hilo: Successful Example of Main Street Projects

Reed Travel Features

HILO -- Downtown Hilo is a successful example of a Main Street program.

Since Hilo Main Street formed in 1985, two-thirds of the 250 buildings in a 24-block area have been renovated, with work ranging from painted facades to completely restored and remodeled buildings.

According to Alice Moon, manager of the Hilo Main Street program, Hilo has the state's largest core of historical buildings; most date from the 1890s to the 1930s.

"Visitors who find downtown love it. They're happy to see a town where the culture and history still exists," she said.

"This is the real Hawaii, and they know they won't bump into 50 million other visitors.

"The problem is getting them here."

Moon, who sees visitors who stop by her office at 252 Kamehameha Ave. for information, envisions downtown's future as an entertainment center, with restaurants, dance clubs and art galleries.

Through a mixture of Main Street incentives, such as federal and state tax relief and free expert advice, the town has come to life with new businesses and new jobs.

However, restoration has slowed. With the Hamakua Sugar Co. gone, downtown businesses are facing hard times.

Also, state funding, which was Main Street Hilo's biggest financial source, ended.

Some federal money comes from Housing and Urban Development for urban blight renewal, but Main Street here is living off reserves.

Moon said existing funding will keep the group going with a full-time office through May.

"It's a tough time for nonprofits. We'll just keep plugging along," she said.

The latest major Main Street project is the restoration of the First Trust Building, built in 1908 and now renamed the Toyama Building, with offices and stores.

A year ago, Hilo got its first modern movie theater, with four screens, contained in the restored Kress Building, built in 1931.

Another notable example of restoration is the S. Hata Building on Kamehameha Street, with a shopping arcade, restaurants and offices.

Designed in renaissance revival style, it was built by the Hata family in 1912, confiscated by the federal government in World War II and later bought back by the family.

Visitors can get a free walking-tour map from hotels or downtown offices of Hilo Main Street or the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

The walking tour begins with Kalakaua Park, named for King Kalakaua, who had a home across the street.

The park features a bronze statue of the king in military uniform and a sundial that has an inscription dated 1877, the fourth year of his reign.

Buildings around the park include the former Hilo Hotel, which closed last summer, and the federal government building, built in the early 1900s.

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