Hilo Farmers Market to get permanent covers

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald The Hilo Farmers Market is bustling with families and shoppers Wednesday in Hilo.
  • The Hilo Farmers Market is bustling with families and shoppers Wednesday in Hilo. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — Despite numerous plan changes and permit issues, it appears the Hilo Farmers Market will start construction of a permanent canopy over the produce market Sept. 1.

“We’ve got our financing wrapped up, so now we’re just starting on our construction phase,” market owner Keith De La Cruz said Wednesday.

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Barett Otani, an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, said De La Cruz has secured a small business loan for construction and the temporary structure permit the market has used to operate is set to expire Sept. 1.

“The temporary tents that they have now are going to have to come down there,” Otani said.

In addition to the popular farmers market at the corner of Kamehameha Avenue and Mamo Street adjacent to Reuben’s Mexican Restaurant, De La Cruz leases two additional land parcels on the Keaukaha side of Mamo where what Otani described as “swap meet vendors” operate.

“So while the construction is going on he’s going to move the (produce) vendors over to that side,” Otani said.

In March, the market had been granted a permit — one of three required for the entire project — to erect a permanent canopy for the produce side of the market. That permit would have allowed a steel-framed and open-sided structure over the part of the market closest to Reuben’s. The county’s Planning Department has since rescinded that approval.

“We had an issue come up regarding flood zones. They had to re-do their plans, implementing a breakaway firewall,” Otani explained. “Since they don’t own the (Reuben’s) building … there’s a 10-foot setback in between. So you have to put a wall there … or have a breakaway so the (flood) waters would be mitigated.”

The rescinded permit pegged the cost for the entire project at $400,000. That includes $25,000 for temporary tents to be erected in the interim, $250,000 for the permanent structure and $125,000 for construction of a photovoltaic solar system. Plans including the breakaway firewall, which would likely increase the project’s price tag, hadn’t been submitted.

T&T Electric is the contractor for the solar installation, with Holu Hou Energy as subcontractor, according to Otani. He said it’s expected Holu Hou will provide financing for the solar array once permits are approved.

The farmers market, recognized as one of the best nationally, requires a special management area permit because of its proximity to the shoreline and its location in a tsunami inundation and flood hazard zone.

Plans for the Keaukaha side of Mamo Street are still pending.

“Even on that side with the swap meet stuff, those temporary permits have to be updated,” Otani said. “We just set a benchmark date of Nov. 1 for submittal. From there, we’ll just see where we’re at. But in between, it could be rejected and they could have to make adjustments and what not.”

De La Cruz said the construction will be done in phases.

“We’ve got three separate properties here, so we’ve got to build three buildings,” he said. “The county has been real helpful … and we are working together to complete this project in the near future.”

De La Cruz was issued a five-year SMA permit on March 17, 2008 and was granted a five-year extension in 2013. Multiple sets of plans were submitted during that time, with each subsequent submission scaling back the proposed structure. De La Cruz maintained it was difficult to secure financing after the so-called Great Recession of 2008, and the market was sheltered by tarps the decade the permits were in effect.

When the permit extension expired on March 16, 2018, the county sent De La Cruz a letter informing him he’d reached the deadline to complete a permanent structure for the market. The letter also stated the market was in violation of the county’s zoning, building and fire codes, and would be fined $1,000 a day for each of the parcels the market occupies for each day violations continued to occur.

The fines reached $212,000 by Oct. 5. Those fines haven’t been paid, but they were halted when De La Cruz met a deadline for submitting plans for a permanent canopy over the produce market — the plans that are being revised to include a breakaway firewall.

Otani said the fines have been reduced because De La Cruz has been working to bring the market into compliance with county standards.

“For the first extension (of the temporary structure permit) to April 1, there was a stipulation that if you meet certain benchmarks, the fines would be (cut) in half. He met those benchmarks, so the total came out to $106,000,” Otani explained. “Then, for him to get a small business loan, he couldn’t do that with a lien on the property. So we had to suspend $81,000 of that $106,000. So $25,000 is what he would have to pay, no matter what, at the end of the project.”

According to Otani, the remaining $81,000 hasn’t been waived by the county.

“It’s a suspension based upon benchmarks and performances,” he said.

De La Cruz said he’s happy his plans “are moving forward and taking one big step closer.”

The county, meanwhile, has its own “certified fresh market” in the works, Otani said. That market would operate two days a week, but not on Wednesdays and Saturdays when the farmers market’s produce section is in operation.

According to Otani, a request for proposal has been issued and one nonprofit organization has submitted a bid to operate the market in the county parking lot by Mooheau Park Bandstand in downtown Hilo.

“It will be a pilot program that will be happening twice a week … to help the farmers out. It has to be certified locally grown, locally produced products,” he said. “The reason we’re contracting with a nonprofit agency is the nonprofit will be conducting training courses, educating farmers and vendors how to do a business plan, how to get the correct licensing, how to have an online presence, that kind of thing. To take it further than just a farmers market.”

Otani said the market will operate under the purview of the Office of the Mayor and the Department of Parks and Recreation. He declined to identify the bidding nonprofit entity, adding the bid is currently “under review,” and the review process should be completed sometime next month.

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According to Otani, the county’s Hele On bus, which has a terminal in Mooheau Park, will pick up and drop off passengers in the parking lot at Hilo’s Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium on the days the county’s market is in operation.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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