Building up NELHA

Construction is booming at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.

Construction is booming at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.


Several active construction sites line the facility’s access road, including a large parcel on the makai side adjacent to West Hawaii Explorations Academy. Two projects are underway there — the groundwork for a monk seal hospital sitting makai of the expansion of a shrimp breeding company.

At the same time, WHEA is preparing for a move mauka to get the school out of the tsunami evacuation zone. Even NELHA itself is in on the construction action, wrapping up work on resecuring its pipeline to the ocean floor.

In all, Executive Director Gregory Barbour said this week, the business park has about $30 million in construction happening now, with another $17 million set to begin next year.

“It says we’re on fire,” Barbour said. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Barbour said state economist Eugene Tian estimated the construction work this year will create 319 jobs and generate $3.6 million in state tax revenue. The work next year will create 175 construction jobs and generate $2.1 million in revenue.

Not only does the work create temporary jobs, but a water bottle preform manufacturer is opening a factory that will create eight permanent jobs, Barbour said.

He attributes some of the increase in construction to an economic uptick.

“The kind of submissions we’re getting for new projects is a good indication (the private sector) is willing to invest,” he said.

But he sees another factor that may play a part in the boom.

“The governor gets it,” Barbour said. “He just sees there’s a lot of potential here.”

With Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s interest in NELHA made clear to state agencies, Barbour has seen more support for NELHA tenants and applicants. NELHA is one of the top areas often discussed when state officials talk about creating job opportunities on the neighbor islands, he added.

These days, “when you go in and ask (state agencies) for support, they listen,” he said. “I really think the private sector recognizes the administration gets it. I think the private sector feels pretty good and is willing to invest because they see the change in attitude.”

Joseph Tabrah, president of Shrimp Improvement Systems, cited something similar in describing why he chose to expand his company’s work at its NELHA site now.

“We’ve been very happy with the support we’ve received,” Tabrah said, adding changes in the local economy didn’t play a role in his decision.

He would have preferred to start the project two years ago, when construction prices were lower. But that didn’t happen, he added.

Shrimp Improvement Services, which is based in Florida, is moving its breeding program to Hawaii. Kona’s temperatures, the amount of regular sunlight and the availability of the seawater, provided by NELHA’s pipe, were all major factors in the company opting to move that portion of their operations here, Tabrah said.

He said he hoped to have the $6 million project’s first phase complete by the end of this year, with the balance of the work done in the first six to eight months of 2014.

Location, more than economy, is a driving factor in the Marine Mammal Center’s decision to build a Hawaiian monk seal hospital at NELHA, spokesman Jim Oswald said Friday.

“It’s really more about why build it at that facility,” Oswald said. “That facility has the necessary infrastructure,” including access to high quality seawater and a good location close to Kona International Airport.

The Marine Mammal Center, based in Sausalito, Calif., has been attending to marine mammals’ health needs since the 1970s, Oswald said. Hawaii has some places to take injured Hawaiian monk seals, but no place dedicated to the animal. The NELHA facility will provide that opportunity, combining the center’s animal husbandry expertise with easier access to animals injured or found ill in state waters.

The project’s first phase, which is the equipment and infrastructure to provide monk seals life-support services, should by done by October, Oswald said. The buildings to house staff and volunteers will be done next. Overall, the project is expected to cost about $3.2 million, Oswald said.

WHEA’s new charter school is estimated to be an $8.5 million project, Barbour said. NELHA’s recently finished pipeline repair cost about $4.7 million. Destiny and Encon’s new preform business is a $2 million project. Cyanotech is adding an office building and extraction facilities at a cost of about $4.5 million. Taylor Shellfish is expanding its building and ponds, for about $1 million.

Next year, NELHA will take on several projects, the most expensive of which is the construction of an internal access road to intersect with Queen Kaahumanu Highway at the Kaiminani Drive light. NELHA also has a $2.3 million connector pipe project.


Makai Ocean Engineering has federal funding to test a turbine on top of a NELHA tower. That’s a $2.2 million project. And the work Shrimp Improvement Systems is planning for next year is expected to cost about $3 million, Barbour said.

“Projects like this require a lot of partnerships,” he said. “People recognize we’re working together.”