Kenoi pushes for Banyan Drive, Kona airport during address to Japanese Chamber

Mayor Billy Kenoi on Monday took aim at projects needed on both sides of the island to move Big Island tourism forward.

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Mayor Billy Kenoi on Monday took aim at projects needed on both sides of the island to move Big Island tourism forward.

Speaking at a meeting of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Hawaii, Kenoi pushed for improvements along Hilo’s Banyan Drive and a renewed effort to make Kona International Airport truly international.

Banyan Drive, where hotels and businesses on state land have often lingered in disrepair, especially needs urgent attention, Kenoi said. The state in 2013 had rebuffed Kenoi’s attempts for the county to take over management of the area.

Kenoi told the chamber he’s been in meetings with state officials, and he expects an announcement of a new arrangement within the next couple of weeks that could give the county more say in the area.

“This is too important an issue for us to say, ‘state, not us.’ … We should not have lodging as an excuse not to increase our visitor market,” Kenoi said. “I think we’ve waited long enough. It’s time to assert our authority … our voice.”

Outside the meeting, however, he stepped back some from his bold assertions.

“We’re exploring all options,” Kenoi said. “We still have a lot of conversation with key stakeholders.”

Kenoi praised the Hilo Hawaiian hotel, which he said has put more than $16 million into restoring the hotel just mauka of Coconut Island. Leaseholders at the nearby Hilo Naniloa Hotel, meanwhile, have been struggling for years to complete renovations as they work to get financing.

“We’d love every property to look like the Hilo Hawaiian. That’s the challenge,” Kenoi said, lamenting the shortage of accommodations on the east side of the island while Waikoloa resorts account for 80 percent of visitor stays. “We don’t need five stars here. But a couple of stars?”

One of the the biggest roadblocks to improvement of hotels and businesses along Banyan Drive is the way the state handles the leases, Chamber President David Honma said after the meeting. He said some of the properties are on short-term leases, and once the leases are up, the state awards them to the highest bidder, rather than renegotiating a contract with the current leaseholder. That makes it hard for businesses to dump millions into improvements, he said.

“It’s a major economic driver for us,” Honma said. “We need to get this issue resolved.”

Upgrading U.S. Customs facilities to allow commercial international flights to return to the Big Island is a goal that the state and county share, Kenoi said. He said he met with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on the issue, and he’s also met with Gov. David Ige. Kenoi also pushed for funding during his annual presentation to the state Legislature in January.

The county last year asked for a waiver of the facilities requirement until a new facility could be constructed.

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Hawaiian Airlines in January filed an application with the U.S. Department of Transportation for direct daily flights between Kona and Tokyo International Airport at Haneda. It would be the first time in five years for commercial international flights to and from Kona International Airport, which has been hampered by the lack of a customs facility.

The island, which had an estimated 2013 population of 190,821, hosted 1.4 million visitors last year.

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