KAILUA-KONA — “Well, it’s finally happened.”
And those words, given by retired Chief Judge Ronald Ibarra Tuesday morning during a dedication ceremony for Keahuolu Courthouse, are finally true.
Following three decades of tireless work to bring the centralized courthouse to fruition, scores of people, including legislators, dignitaries and current and retired judges and employees, gathered to bless and celebrate the opening of the stately 140,000-square-foot judiciary complex.
“This represents a significant milestone for West Hawaii,” said Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald, who made the courthouse a priority of his administration in November 2010, less than two months after being sworn into office. “The building will provide a safe, secure and modern place where people can come together to obtain justice. And it will enable us to make vitally needed programs and services more readily available to the community, whether it be in our civil, family or criminal courts.”
The three-story facility off Kamakaeha Avenue opened to the public on Sept. 3 for its first day of official court operations. It brought together four court operations taking place at three sites in South and North Kona into one modern, state-of-the-art courthouse.
“The days of holding court in the old hospital, the farm and garden shop, the title building — those are fond memories but it’s time to move forward,” said Recktenwald of the 32,000 feet of leased space from which the courts had operated for years.
Ibarra, who was born in the old Kona hospital and presided over court as a judge in the building later in life, was more blunt: “They weren’t courthouses. They were makeshift to serve the Kona community and the West Hawaii community, but they were not courthouses.”
“This is a courthouse,” he said.
With five courtrooms — and a footprint for expansion to seven — the three-story $95.8 million judiciary complex is designed to meet the community’s needs through at least 2030.
It was completed on time and on budget, Recktenwald said. Funding for the facility’s construction was passed by the state Legislature and approved by Gov. David Ige in 2015. Construction got underway in October 2016. In 2018, an additional $5.8 million was allocated for furniture.
Recktenwald and the other speakers at Tuesday’s engagement, including current Chief Judge Greg Nakamura, Ibarra, Ige, Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-Kona), and Sen. Dru Kanuha (D-Kona, Ka‘u), each took the time to thank the numerous people — from legislators to community members — who worked over the years to make the courthouse a reality.
“From the folks 30 years ago who started the dream to the folks that put the last brick in the wall and every one in between, a deep mahalo to them,” Recktenwald said.
They also took the time to thank the employees for making justice happen, despite not having the infrastructure for court operations, pointing out the lack of security and other issues the “spartan” and “substandard” facilities presented.
“Even with all these challenges, our judges and Judiciary employees did their best and provided excellent service to the public,” Ibarra said. “Excellent service.”
Lowen, whom Recktenwald described as a “bulldog” in the House Finance Committee when it came to securing funding for the project, said the courthouse is just one example of what the community can do.
“As we move forward with other needs in our community, a new hospital for example, I know that if we all work together for something like that, even though it’s really big and seems daunting and may take a few decades to happen, we can work together to make it happen,” she said.