That Old Feeling

An ongoing public-private initiative breathes new life into historic Wailuku town

March, 2003

About 30 years ago, the ramshackle town of Wailuku could offer visitors little proof of its storied past. The mix of unkempt storefronts, shabby roads and dilapidated buildings belied the rich history of Maui’s county seat, once the residence of the island’s greatestalii, Kahekili, and, a century later, home to generations of sugar-plantation laborers. Tourists, especially, viewed the area as simply the quickest route to Iao Valley, one of Maui’s prime attractions.

That was 30 years ago. Today, Wailuku merchants benefit from a steady flow of patrons. Likewise, visitors and locals enjoy a much more inviting assortment of retailers and entertainment venues. All thanks to an ongoing public and private effort to redevelop the aging town, while retaining its historical character.

“In 2000, the County Council approved the Wailuku Redevelopment Plan, which basically set an overall strategy for the town’s revitalization, such as improving substandard roads and deteriorated structures,” says John Summers, the county’s administrative planning officer. “We’re trying to encourage Wailuku to develop a niche for itself — not to directly compete with big-box retailers or shopping centers, but to develop a critical mass to attract both visitors and locals.”

To date, the county has received more than $3 million in federal grants to implement the strategy. The plan includes improvements to Wailuku’s Market Street, such as new lighting, landscaping and traffic-calming measures. Federal money also funded the construction of a police substation, a small park and additional parking behind the historic Iao Theater. The theater, which underwent its own restoration about 10 years ago, has enticed more locals to Wailuku for nighttime and weekend activity.

Last year, the Maui Redevelopment Agency, which directs the revitalization plan, adopted a “small-town code.” This special designation allows Wailuku flexibility with Maui’s building ordinances, which are more suited for larger towns such as Kahului or Kihei. For instance, Wailuku merchants are now exempt from an ordinance requiring them to provide onsite parking. That mandate would have rendered many small lots undesirable for prospective tenants. To accommodate increased visitor numbers, the county instead plans to add another 300 stalls to its centralized municipal parking lot.

“The plan is all about keeping the historical character of the town, because that’s something we could never replace,” says real-estate broker Grant Howe, who completed his five-year term as the agency’s chairman last year. “For instance, when the old National Dollar Store closed, we took this great, old building and gutted it, while preserving the exterior. Now, the Maui Academy of Performing Arts is using the 9,000-square-foot building as a studio and is raising funds to launch its black-box theater.”

The improvements haven’t gone unnoticed by local merchants. When Teri Edmonds first opened her shoe store, If the Shoe Fits, two years ago, there were several vacancies on Market Street. Now, the area is 100 percent occupied.

“Our success relies on retaining this small-town feel, offering something different that no one else on this island can offer,” says Edmonds, whose neighboring businesses include a café, an antique shop and a popcorn manufacturer. “People are starting to comment that Wailuku reminds them of a little San Francisco, a groovy little town. I don’t think it’ll ever be like Lahaina or Paia, but we have a nice little community that’s growing.”

Summers agrees: “We’re still not where we want to be, but we’re getting there with this sustained effort. Once you get this critical mass of specialty shops and retailers, Wailuku will take on a life of its own. And while we’re completing this effort, we have to make sure we protect the history and character that are cherished by the community.”

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