TEACH drops out of Old Maui High

Development group still hopes to transfer its vision of community hub to local nonprofit

Jason Hobson (left), chief development officer of TEACH, addresses the crowd as county Office of Economic Development Director Teena Rasmussen listens during a February community meeting at the Paia Community Center. The gathering got so heated that Rassmussen said Monday, “I left that meeting so disheartened thinking, ‘Is this the Maui we have become? So intolerant, so angry, so disrespectful?’ ’’ • The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

TEACH Development, which was planning to turn Old Maui High School into a center for agriculture, technology and education, has ended its pursuit of the project, citing “strong opposition to nonlocal for-profit companies receiving public land.”

“TEACH will not be moving forward with the project, however, we do have a strong desire to see this vision realized and seek to assign and transfer this project into the hands of local nonprofits and community members,” TEACH officials wrote in a March 18 letter to county officials.

The company said it made its decision despite what “appears to be clear alignment of vision.”

The letter came about a month after a hostile community meeting in Paia, where many residents railed against the project. At the Feb. 13 meeting, some told TEACH to “pack up and leave.” There was a calmer but still heated gathering in November at the old campus in Hamakuapoko as well.

Residents were concerned the project would attract more development to north shore green spaces and increase already congested traffic. They argued that TEACH was long on ideas and short on specifics, and critics were wary of the group they didn’t know much about.

TEACH, an acronym for technology, education, agriculture, community and health, is a Hawaii limited liability corporation formed for the project. It was chosen by Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration through a request-for-proposal process to reuse and redevelop the 23-acre campus that currently sits vacant. The land was turned over to the county by the state in 2010.

Currently, the county pays the nonprofit Friends of Old Maui High School $65,000 to $100,000 annually to maintain and to make repairs to the campus established in 1913.

TEACH’s owners and officers, who are residents of Maui, Oahu and the Mainland, had hoped to turn the campus into a community hub. About half of the acreage was to be used for regenerative agriculture and permaculture, according to its website. The rest of the space was to be converted into campus housing; an education center; a conference facility for youth programs and a camp; a museum; an amphitheater; a restaurant and centers for wellness, culture, technology and food innovation.

The project was estimated to cost about $50 million. TEACH officials have said they would not be seeking county funding but were seeking a $1-a-year lease from the county for 60 years.

Jason Hobson, TEACH chief development officer, said in an email Monday afternoon that he was unavailable but could forward questions to another member of the TEACH team. Chief Executive Officer Mark Chasan could not be reached for comment.

But Teena Rasmussen, director of county’s Office of Economic Development, expressed sadness over TEACH’s departure and said this “was the last, best hope for this campus.”

“I believe that the TEACH partners had a good vision and were very willing to work with the community in creating a project everyone could feel good about,” she said. “Our office has worked on this for four years, but others have spent decades trying to find organizations and projects to take over this campus. I sadly believe now, the famous Dickey administration building will never be restored.”

She also thanked TEACH and apologized that there was not a successful outcome.

Rasmussen said she wasn’t sure what the county’s next steps would be or what Friends of Old Maui High School’s plans are.

“We don’t know in light of this, if they are going to want to continue,” she said.

An official with Friends of Old Maui High School could not be reached for comment Monday.

TEACH’s vision was backed by the Friends of Old Maui High School, which said TEACH’s plans carried out its master plan developed in 2007.

Developing, preserving and using the site is a problem because of costly sewage disposal and water improvements needed.

TEACH’s letter, signed by Chasan and Hobson, is included in a March 30 communication from the administration to Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura, who is the chairwoman of the council Policy, Economic Development and Agriculture Committee. A lease for the site was pending in the committee but has now been withdrawn.

In ending its efforts at Old Maui High, TEACH cited a change.org petition opposing the project. The petition said that the community wanted collaboration with local nonprofits who are already established “and understand the community’s social, economic, and cultural problems.” It said that local entities deserve the space and that there is a need for charter schools, agriculture and native plant greenhouses and senior centers. A for-profit entity should not be granted a $1-a-year lease for county land; commercial spaces could be found elsewhere on Maui, the petition said.

TEACH said in its letter that it believes there is hope for the project. The company has met with key community leaders to discuss the assignment, transition and evolution of the project and is “seeing a significant amount of desire, trust, collaboration and enthusiasm” to transfer the project to a local nonprofit or community group.

In calling for healing, Rasmussen expressed disappointment in the tenor of the discussions and debate over the project, especially at the heated Feb. 13 meeting at the Paia Community Center. The meeting “was highly charged with people shouting and making profane and racist remarks — even with keiki in the room,” she said.

“I left that meeting so disheartened thinking, ‘Is this the Maui we have become? So intolerant, so angry, so disrespectful?’ ” she said.

There needs to be a conversation about how people gather to discuss difficult issues and problems, she said. Organizations, churches and schools across the county should be initiating conversations about how to tackle difficult issues and problems in a collaborative way.

“It should be a process that brings citizens of all views together with open minds and a willingness to listen and talk respectfully — a process that will unite us instead of divide us,” she said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.


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