Say Hello to Hilo

Article excerpt

Spend any time at all in Hilo and you'll find that rain is a fact of life in this tin-roofed port and farming center on the Big Island of Hawaii. Its average annual precipitation of 129 inches makes Hilo the rainiest city in the nation.

Yet this sogginess does little to dampen the enthusiasm of travelers who are discovering that Hilo has become a good base for exploring nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, and waterfalls along the Hamakua Coast just north of town. A number of special events -- including the traditional hula performances at the Merrie Monarch Festival in March, the Big Island Wilderness Run in July, and the Hawaii County Fair in September -- also attract residents as well as visitors.

Until recently downtown Hilo was virtually a ghost town of empty old buildings, but a decade of quiet restoration by the Hilo Main Street Program is finally having an impact. Today this county seat is worth a visit even if you do no more than stroll the historic district.

A TOWN RUINED -- THEN

SAVED -- BY A TSUNAMI

What makes the Main Street Program -- and a Hilo visit -- unique isn't necessarily the age of the oldest buildings, which date from 1908, but the fact that 90 percent of all downtown buildings in use today were completed before 1938. Main Street project manager Russell Kokubun is only half-joking when he says the preservation program owes a lot of its success to a tsunami, or tidal wave, that nearly destroyed the downtown area 35 years ago.

"The 1960 tsunami really hit Hilo with a double whammy," he says. "It wiped out one whole street and hurt the local economy; that was bad enough. But the longer-term impact came from revised building codes requiring all new construction within the `inundation zone' -- and that included most of downtown Hilo -- to be 10 feet above-ground."

The only exception was made for restoration of pre-existing buildings, which is why much of downtown's landmark architecture wasn't demolished. But because of the stricter zoning, new commercial construction went to shopping centers in outlying areas, gradually draining business away from the town center.

Making things still worse, the tourism boom of the 1960s and '70s bypassed Hilo in favor of the sunnier west side of the Big Island. Desperate measures were needed. In 1985 local businesses formed the Hilo Main Street Program, inspired by a program developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They had two goals in mind: reinvigorating the downtown economy while at the same time preserving the historic fabric of the district.

It took time and patience, but efforts are finally beginning to pay off. Kokubun points with pride to once boarded-up buildings on Kamehameha Avenue: the 1912 S. Hata Building is now filled with shops and restaurants, and the Kress Building, a former dime store with a soaring art deco front, will become the home of a movie fourplex and shops scheduled to open in November.

EXPLORING HISTORIC

DOWNTOWN HILO

Visit the Hilo Main Street Program office, at 252 Kamehameha Avenue, to pick up a free map and walking-tour brochure and get details on special local events and attractions. Heading north on Kamehameha, detour half a block west on Haili Street to see the program at work. The facade of the Palace Theatre is restored, but interior structural work must be completed before the space can be used as a community center. (Those forged rings in the sidewalk across the street are original horse hitching rings. …