LIHUE, Kauai — On Kauai, fondly known as the Garden Isle, all is not green. The lush jungle for which the island derives its nickname is notably absent from places like downtown Lihue, better characterized by cracked sidewalks, aging parks occupied by the homeless and litter-strewn streets.
As the island’s center of industry and government, Lihue provides residents a central spot to stock up on groceries, service the car, pay the parking ticket, cash a paycheck and receive advanced medical treatment. Hidden between empty storefronts and vacant lots are some small town charms, such as the shells of historic buildings or a saimin lunch counter that has been in the same family for four generations.
But, for the most part, Lihue is the place you go to check the errands off your list — and then hurriedly retreat home. For tourists, it is a blip in the guidebook if mentioned at all.
Change is afoot, however. As the county prepares to undertake a $13.8 million makeover of the downtown streetscape in 2018, a band of residents, businesspeople and county planners are planting the seeds of a cultural renaissance.
New building codes and incentives for businesses are now in place with the goal of making the downtown more walkable and aesthetically appealing while preserving the markers of its rich plantation heritage.
A nonprofit has been formed to renovate a community park fallen into disrepair. There’s a new farmer’s market. What’s known as the Rice Street district even has its own logo now, an attempt to unify what is an otherwise fragmented main street.
Can this workaday town, with a main thoroughfare that goes empty after 5 p.m., reinvent itself as a hub of activity? At least one commercial real estate investor is betting on it.
In September, Mark Gabbay, a 51-year-old money manager with a house on Kauai and a day job in Asia, purchased the Rice Street landmark known as the Kress building. Originally a five-and-dime retail department store, the 1930s building measures a staggering 22,000 square feet. On the market for years, it most recently housed a Salvation Army thrift store.
Gabbay, who says he purchased the Kress building for less than $2 million, also bought a nearby corner lot with a building that he hopes to lease for commercial use. But first the 4,400-square-foot structure needs a complete rebuild.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a sure thing,” Gabbay says of the county’s plans to breathe life into Lihue’s core. “I think people can see a vague outline of it coming together now, but I would say it’s got a long way to go for it to see any kind of success. You can talk, talk, talk, but ultimately you’ve got to just do it and see how it plays out. So I bought into it.”
With the Kress building, Gabbay is planning an art hub unlike anything Kauai has seen. With artist studios in the back and a live event space in the front, Gabbay envisions a cultural center with an industrial aesthetic where people can gather to watch professional artists at work in their studios or attend concerts, lectures and private parties.
There will be a bar. Possibly a kitchen. An artist residency program is under discussion.
“Most art is sold in New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong and London,” Gabbay says. “We’re not near those cities. There’s no access to it. But if we had this kind of facility maybe we could attract people from around the globe to come temporarily and create some work here and give talks to the community and get people to widen their lens.
“Also, locally, there isn’t a place for artists to work. Even if you don’t care about the global market, on this island the only option really is to work in your house. I kind of see this as two-directional: Work coming in, work going out.”
Gabbay, who is an art collector, says he wants to create a facility that can bring some cohesion to an art community that is rather disjointed.
In 2015, a study of local art creation, appreciation and consumption by the Kauai Economic Development Board and Office of Economic Development found that the island’s vibrant and diverse artist community is plagued by lack of affordable studio space, difficulties in obtaining grants, challenges in marketing and publicizing work, limited arts education and the absence of a central resource for industry development.
The study identified an antidote: the establishment of a center for arts and culture on Kauai. But who would pay for it?
“I think for people to truly be well-rounded, I think art plays a big role in that,” Gabbay says. “I think as things become more technology-oriented you lose a lot of the creative thinking process that art encourages. So building a facility to cultivate that sounds good, but the reality is that you have to figure out how you’re going to pay for all that. And I think you have to put your money where your mouth is.”
But first he’s got to renovate the 80-year-old building and bring it up to code. That’s a task for which the price tag bears a big, bold question mark.
“If an area is going to get redeveloped, somebody’s got to light the spark,” Gabbay says. “I do think this is an if-you-build-it-they-will-come kind of a place.”
If Gabbay does find success on Rice Street, he won’t be the first. Kauai Beer Company stands as the single, shining example of how a new business can open in downtown Lihue and cultivate a lucrative following. In four years of business, the microbrewery and restaurant has become a gathering place for residents and tourists of all stripes.
The owners chalk up the business’s ability to draw a lively crowd to a magic combination of luck and consistently good food and service.
And now they’re doubling down on their bet: Kauai Beer Company’s owners are working to expand their Rice Street footprint with a planned barbecue restaurant and open-air beer garden.
“When we started there wasn’t much going on around here,” said Larry Feinstein, Kauai Beer Company’s spokesman. “Now it’s become increasingly active. We’re surfing this wonderful wave of growth and we got on the line early. The curve ahead looks good and we’re going to see where it goes.”