Angry residents voice opposition to TEACH project
Some say questions outnumbered answers at meeting to discuss redevelopment of Old Maui High School
PAIA — Saying “nobody here wants this,” angry residents voiced overwhelming opposition to TEACH, the group that plans to turn Old Maui High School into a center for agriculture, housing and education.
Hundreds of residents packed the Paia Community Center Monday evening, eager to speak out against a project that’s been billed as a sustainable renovation of a campus that closed nearly 50 years ago.
“The whole purpose for doing this is not to make money, but to show that we can actually live differently and be much more conscious about how we live on the land . . . and to teach kids new skills that will hopefully make a big difference for their future,” said Mark Chasan, chief executive officer of the for-profit TEACH.
But many thought the group used “buzzwords” to make the project seem more environmentally friendly. Makawao resident Mary Ann Pahukoa called it “greenwashing.”
“It would be really meaningful if TEACH would pack up and leave,” Pahukoa said to loud cheers. “Don’t get fooled by sustainability and their vision. Hawaiians have been sustainable for centuries. . . . With or without TEACH, we will always remain sustainable.”
TEACH stands for technology, education, agriculture, community and health. In 2014, the county started looking for groups to repurpose the 23-acre campus in Hama-kuapoko and eventually selected TEACH. Owners and officers are residents of Maui, Oahu and the Mainland, according to Jason Hobson, chief development officer.
Old Maui High School opened in 1913 but folded after students and faculty moved to the new Maui High campus in Kahului in 1972, according to the nonprofit Friends of Old Maui High School. Various groups have used the campus over the years, including the Maui Dance Council and the University of Hawaii. The Friends of Old Maui High School formed in 2004 to preserve the deteriorating campus.
In 2010, the state turned the land over to Maui County, which now gives the Friends of Old Maui High School between $65,000 to $100,000 annually in grants to do repairs on the campus.
Now, TEACH hopes to turn the campus into a community hub. About half of the available acreage would be used for regenerative agriculture and permaculture, according to its website. The rest of the space would be converted into campus housing, an education center, a conference facility, youth programs and camp, a museum, amphitheater, restaurant and centers for wellness, culture, technology and food innovation.
The project is estimated to cost around $50 million. TEACH officials have said in the past that they would not ask the county for funding.
But many residents thought that TEACH was long on ideas and short on specifics. They repeated concerns from past meetings — that the project would attract more development to north shore green spaces and increase traffic in an area already notorious for it.
“We feel that this is a lynchpin that’s going to open up a whole new set of development,” Haiku resident Wangdu Hovey said. “We don’t know if that’s going to be the center and then it’s going to spread out from there. . . . I think a lot of people are really just pissed off because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Residents also were upset that the county was considering a low-priced, $1-a-year lease for 60 years, especially for a for-profit organization like TEACH.
But the county had offered the $1-a-year deal before it chose TEACH, “in return for the campus to be used for a higher and better purpose than currently exists,” according to the request for proposals in 2014. The county chose the low lease terms “because of the millions it’s going to take to fix the infrastructure,” Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen said during a council committee meeting in November.
Chasan said TEACH’s intention was “not to build a Makawao or Paia.”
“I don’t think that this development will be the stimulus for more development,” he said after the meeting. “I think it might be the stimulus for the Paia bypass, hopefully. Hopefully that as development happens, which it will, at least the development will be (environmentally) conscious.”
Sen. Kalani English said after the meeting that he was still unsure about what the project would offer. He too was concerned about the traffic.
“We are beyond capacity right now for this area,” said English, whose district includes Hana, East and Upcountry Maui, Molokai and Lanai. “I’m actually leaving with a lot more questions than I came in with. To sum it all up, the real question is, what are they doing? I still don’t know.”
The project is still awaiting a lease from the county. A council committee deferred the issue in November. Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, who chairs the Policy, Economic Development and Agriculture Committee, said after the meeting Monday that she hadn’t scheduled the item yet.
When asked whether he’d thought about nixing the project, Chasan said that “sure, it’s a consideration,” but that he wasn’t “the sole decision-maker here.”
“We have a board, and that board has to make the decision,” he said. “I need to talk with our team, and we may just decide, just with all the opposition, maybe it’s not financially viable, and we may have to really look at other alternatives.”
* Colleen Uechi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.