Sitting in committees in the U.S. Congress are two pieces of legislation that could greatly affect residents, businesses and property owners and community stakeholders throughout the greater Honolulu area.

S. 359 and H. 1297 propose to designate the area from Punahou Street westward to Kalihi Street and from Nuuanu Pali to the ocean as the Hawaii Capital National Heritage Area (NHA).

NHAs are typically managed by a private non-profit group and funded by the Department of the Interior with 10-15 million dollars over a period of 10-15 years. Their focus is to promote cultural tourism, education and preservation. The designation (and management) is permanent until cancelled by another act of Congress.

In Hawaii, the Hawaii Capital Cultural Coalition (HCCC) is proposed as the managing entity for the NHA. HCCC has been working on this initiative for the past six years, yet few people outside of the primarily arts-affiliated non-profits, tourist industry businesses and pertinent city and state agencies seem aware of its existence.

Proponents of NHA programs often portray them as “just” cultural grants programs to tell the stories and history of the area; they tout several protections in the legislation for property owners. But a close look at provisions of the bills, the HCCC’s feasibility study, and at other Heritage Areas across the U.S. reveals another side to this legislation.

One of the first tasks, if legislation passes, is to create a management plan for the entire area. This plan will include an inventory of sites and properties within the area that should be protected, enhanced, managed or developed (S.359, Sec. 5(5)). So, a private, self selected group who is neither appointed by elected officials nor accountable to the community at large will make recommendations about other people’s neighborhoods and properties.

This authority could range from weighing in if a property owner wishes to develop their property in a way that conflicts with the “management plan” to recommending that certain properties be condemned and then transferred to other groups in the name of economic development (as per the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London).

The federal funds that follow such a designation, and the fact that the funds could be cut off or diminished by the Department of the Interior if the plan is not implemented adequately, are a huge enticement for local governments to follow the recommendations of the management plan.

In Wheeling, West Virginia, the NHA managing entity proposed “to convert up to ninety percent of downtown Wheeling into a Victorian-themed outlet mall”. The plan “would have condemned properties and transferred them from their present owners to private retail businesses chosen by City officials.”

City and State officials supported the plan (and approved funding mechanisms) which potentially affected almost 200 businesses. The plan was thwarted by property owners who opposed the condemnation.

Constraints on ownership of property by the managing entity can also be circumvented by acquiring long term leases on properties obtained by the City as well as by partnering with municipalities in the redevelopment of properties. There are no conflict-of-interest safeguards to ensure that the groups making recommendations about others properties are not the ones “managing” or “developing” those same properties.

Without meaningful safeguards in these bills, almost anything can happen

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