LIHUE, Kauai — Frank Hay sat in the coffee shop called Ha on Rice Street in what passes for an urban core in the Garden Isle’s county seat.
Out the window, crews could be seen moving gravel up the street in an ambitious, federally funded project to re-establish Lihue as a major focus of life here. If it is successful, there will be an essentially new Lihue, with apartments, homes, restaurants and retail shops replacing the blight of a town once thought to have been mortally wounded by Walmart and Costco.
The big box stores arrived 10 to 15 years ago and sucked the air out of Lihue, which was already in decline from its days as the central sugar town on the island.
Hay, a member of the influential Lihue Business Association, pondered a question: Has Lihue’s moment of revival arrived? All he could think of to say was, “I hope so.”
There is preliminary evidence in several locations on and around Rice Street that the moment may have come. The glue that holds it all together is construction work reconfiguring Rice and several surrounding streets under an ambitious federal grant with an improbable bureaucratic name: TIGER. That’s for “Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery,” $13 million in federal funds that Kauai County won against all odds in 2015.
Construction is scheduled to be completed by year’s end, though delays may cause that to slip a few weeks into 2020, according to project officials.
TIGER will reduce traffic from three lanes to two on Rice, adding parking pockets, a bike lane and pedestrian walkways in addition to more basic sidewalks and a transit hub with new landscaping. It’s all intended to be the catalyst for attracting businesses of all types to locate, or reinvent themselves if they are already there.
There is early evidence of success, but whether TIGER actually roars over the next three to five years depends on a series of events over which no one has central control.
“It’s a fair statement that Lihue may be on the verge of a comeback,” said Lee Steinmetz, a county planner. “But I can’t give you a definitive yes or no. There are so many things that have to happen.”
“The TIGER project is setting up the physical environment of the street, but a lot of it is related to private property owners,” Steinmetz said. “We see the TIGER project as more than just a set of sidewalk and traffic improvements. We’re really trying to create a destination.”
TIGER is the major component of a reinvention of Lihue originally articulated 10 years ago in the Lihue Town Core Urban Design Plan, which promised a transformation of the town center by 2020.
A decade later, a TIGER work crew has cut down the trees along much of Rice in preparation for tearing up the road and sidewalks to construct the new pedestrian-friendly environment. Along one block, a single tree — a dead one — in front of Lee’s Furniture is still standing. At its base, orange spray paint has laid a square around it with the word, “save.”
It’s a fitting analogy for the entire Rice Street/Lihue core project.
“I think it’s happening,” said Chris Sadler, a Princeville real estate agent who serves as project manager for two renovation projects on Rice. “We have great political support.”
A shopping center on Rice changed hands last year and rumors are rampant about what may be done with it, but the new owner has not made any public announcement of his intentions and tenants have been told nothing. Vacant stores line the street, awaiting for their future.
The U.S. Postal Service, which last year announced the closure of the main Lihue post office, changed its mind and is leaving the historic structure open for business — at least for now. USPS reportedly couldn’t find a buyer for the property, which carries a $1.6 million price tag.
A couple of blocks down, Rob’s Good Time Grill, a stalwart of downtown Lihue, is expanding. Across the street, a former American Savings Bank building has been taken over by Hoike Television, the local public access cable station.
For now, the most tangible piece of evidence that Rice’s reinvention may be taking shape is at the Kauai Beer Co., a microbrew house and restaurant whose owner, Jim Guerber, is in the midst of a construction project that will add a second restaurant and a major expansion of the brewery. He envisions two restaurants at his site, one of which would have a food truck motif and a climbing wall, not to mention an outdoor seating area at second-floor height.
“We need to do it,” Guerber said on a recent Thursday night with two food trucks parked in front of the Beer Co. in a promotion that has become a weekly attraction in Lihue. “There is a (county) plan for Rice Street and they had some good ideas, but a lot happens with the county and nothing gets done. I just came in and built this place. I knew it had to be a destination.
“My dream is that Rice Street looks like University Avenue in Palo Alto, with little stores, 1930s architecture and parking behind the buildings. Or 16th Street in Denver. No cars, with electric buses. I think we’ve got to dream a little bit and try for it. Rice Street ought to be a place between work and home and I’d like to see more of that happening.”
Larry Feinstein, who serves as the de facto marketing director for the Beer Co., scoffs at doubt in some quarters about whether the Rice Street revival is ready for liftoff or at risk of blowing up on the launching pad.
“What strikes me as odd about all the skepticism regarding the revitalization of Rice Street is that this is not an experiment,” Feinstein said. “We have decades of proof (elsewhere) that this concept works.”
Those doubters are reluctant to express their skepticism publicly, especially since the entire political establishment, including Mayor Derek Kawakami, is solidly behind the budding Lihue revival.
Mark Gabbay, whose dream for Rice centers around restoration of the historic Kress department store building a few doors down from the Beer Co., is also redeveloping a real estate office across Kress Street from his main project. He envisions art galleries and two restaurants in the Kress project site, but hasn’t thought through what he wants to do with the under-renovation real estate office.
A senior housing complex opened a couple of years ago and the height limit for buildings on Rice was increased recently to 50 feet in hopes of stimulating housing projects that would be, by Kauai standards, high rises.
“I think it’s fair to say Rice Street is at a takeoff point,” Gabbay said. “The question is what is the town center concept. Liftoff, yes. But it’s a long runway.”
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