Contributions sought for former hospital site: County could develop 20 acres around Hilo facility

Part of the former Hilo Memorial Hospital is undergoing renovations, and the County of Hawaii is collecting feedback on future development of the 20 acres surrounding the facility.

The need for more housing and health services were priorities expressed by community members and stakeholders at a May 15 meeting to discuss potential uses for the former hospital property located at 34 Rainbow Drive.

But some residents expressed concern about possible disruptions caused by the expansion of the site.

“Some members of the community have expressed concerns about disruptive behavior, including from people experiencing mental health crises,” said Brandee Menino, director of HOPE Services, which currently operates two housing programs out of the existing structure on the property. “I think this illustrates how desperately our community needs to increase the level of services that can help get people off the streets and into a safe place where they can get the help they need.”

The old hospital opened in 1897 and occupies approximately five acres of the 25-acre site.

“About six dozen people showed up (at the meeting), providing input on what they would and would not like to see on the property,” said Susan Kunz, housing manager for the County Office of Housing and Community Development. Hawaii, which is responsible for the planning, management and operation of the space. “To encourage broad discussion, the planner or county did not present any concepts or ideas beyond the basic information and topographic details of the site.”

A master plan for site development will focus on the 20 acres surrounding the existing structure and will not affect current services.

Separate renovations to the existing building are underway and will be completed by early 2025, according to Kunz.

“The county’s first obligation in renovating the old Hilo Memorial Hospital building includes reroofing the facility and selective demolition of the interior,” he said, adding that the renovations are supported by federal funds.

HOPE Services currently operates the Keolahou Shelter and Assessment Center out of the old hospital building.

Launched in 2019, the 44-bed shelter offers emergency beds, case management and other resources for men.

“This is the only temporary emergency shelter for men in Hilo,” Menino said. “These include eight beds specifically for homeless veterans and five beds for men leaving the hospital who need additional time to recover from their illnesses or injuries.”

HOPE Services also operates Hale Kulike on the top floor of the building, which is a support program for single men that offers 18 private rooms with shared bathrooms, showers, and kitchens.

The space also houses HIV testing, smoking cessation programs, hepatitis vaccinations, employment services, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with the help of other community partners.

The Big Island Substance Abuse Council, or BISAC, also rents space in the building, but hasn’t moved in yet.

“We have a long-term lease with the county. However, we haven’t gotten there yet because of the renovations,” said Executive Director Dr. Hannah Preston-Pita. “We’re just assuming it’s going to be another two or three years.”

BISAC plans to provide mental health and substance use services, including stabilization beds and a possible detoxification center.

“We are looking to explore more detox options because there is nothing on the island,” Preston-Pita said. “We are thinking of a complete continuity of care.”

Both HOPE Services and BISAC plan to remain in the building following renovations and development of the surrounding area.

Renee Rivera is a former client of HOPE Services who attended the meeting. She now teaches at Hawaii Community College and runs a nonprofit for women returning to the community after incarceration.

“As I look to homeless people with mental health issues like myself, I ask you to remember that I am the daughter and mother of someone with a story that deserves to be heard,” she said. “Now, I am housed and healthy. Let’s help others do the same.”

Fung Associates Inc. is the firm in charge of the renovations and will partner with PBR Hawaii Associates Inc. to draft an environmental assessment and concept drawings for the surrounding land.

An official master plan for the 20 acres is expected by the end of 2023, and a follow-up community meeting will take place this summer.

Additional comments about the site may be sent in writing to PBR Hawaii at [email protected].

Email Grant Phillips at [email protected].