Honolulu is creating a new city office to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Office of Economic Revitalization will focus on three areas: expanding testing, connecting residents and businesses to assistance and developing a plan to transition Oahu into an economic future less reliant on tourism. It will replace the mayor’s existing Office of Economic Development and will use 5% of Honolulu’s $387 million CARES Act funds, or about $19 million.

Josh Stanbro, the city’s chief resilience officer, said the office will allow the city to tackle immediate needs while laying the groundwork for a sustainable path forward.

“This is not a sprint any longer,” he said. “This is a marathon.”

Mayor Kirk Caldwell gestures about the city of Honolulu’s recovery coming out of the lock down. June 2, 2020
Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced the new office at the Blaisdell where the new office will be based. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

To head the new office, Mayor Kirk Caldwell has tapped Rick Keene, a city employee who previously worked as the chief financial officer for The Queen’s Medical Center and the CFO of Bank of Hawaii. Most recently, Keene was an executive assistant to Managing Director Roy Amemiya. Keene has been the administration’s “eyes and ears” for the rail project and has also helped the city procure personal protective equipment, Amemiya said.

About 30% of the state’s usual labor force is out of work, and most of those workers are on Oahu. As cases of COVID-19 remain low, it’s time for the city to consolidate and coordinate what has been an emergency response scattered across departments, Amemiya said.

The new office will be headquartered on the second floor of the Blaisdell Center which will be able to host job fairs or other workforce development efforts in its exhibition hall. It is slated to open July 1.

Rick Keene. Mayors new office.
Rick Keene was chosen to lead the economic revitalization office. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The city said it plans to immediately hire up to 15 currently out-of-work individuals to take calls, respond to emails and serve in other “recovery hub” roles.

The city is making an effort to spend the federal dollars strategically to extract the maximum benefit for the community, Stanbro said.

“You have a choice every time you spend a dollar of CARES, do you spend it in a way that immediately, 90 cents of that dollar gets on a ship and leaves the island?” he said. “Or do you spend it in a way that 90% of it stays on the island?”

Officials are looking to support local businesses in areas including health care, technology, resilient infrastructure, housing, green energy, transportation, sustainable agriculture and “regenerative tourism” in which communities get a net benefit from visitors. Diversifying the economy was already a goal of the administration as outlined in its Oahu Resilience Strategy, Stanbro said.

The new office has the support of the City Council’s recently created Economic Assistance and Revitalization Committee chaired by Councilman Tommy Waters. The committee will convene a stakeholder group to advise members on economic recovery issues, the city said in a news release.

Councilwoman Kym Pine, chair of the council’s Business, Economic Development and Tourism Committee, said she supports the concept but wants to monitor spending closely. Unlike in normal circumstances, the administration has said it doesn’t need the council’s approval to spend the CARES Act funds. However, officials said they welcome input and will inform the council of spending decisions.

“There are no checks and balances right now,” said Pine, who is running for mayor. “We are at risk of major fraud unless we keep a close eye on how this money is being spent.”

The CARES money needs to be spent by the end of the year, but the city is hoping Congress approves additional aid.

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