Hawaiʻi County councilwoman calls for ‘drastic’ action at abandoned Uncle Billy’s hotel in Hilo
July 2, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
For decades, Banyan Drive has been known as the “Hilo Walk of Fame” for the majestic trees planted by celebrities. It also is home to the Hilo Hawaiian, Grand Naniloa, Liliʻuokalani Gardens and Reed’s Bay Beach Park.
But over the years, two properties along the road — abandoned Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay Hotel and neglected Country Club Condominiums — have become a haven for crime, squatters, drugs, fires and even a suicide and leading to hundreds of responses by police and fire personnel during the past six years.
On July 5, Hawai‘i County Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, who represents the Banyan Drive area, plans to introduce Resolution No. 199 to ask Gov. Josh Green for help by issuing an emergency proclamation. This would lead to resources to tackle the problems in the Banyan Drive area, specifically targeting Uncle Billy’s.
“This is a request by the community to get something done at Banyan Drive — Uncle Billy’s has reached a crescendo,” the Councilwoman said. “Drastic and swift action has to be taken.”
In data provided in the resolution, from September 2018 to April 2023, Hawaiʻi Island police responded to:
- 157 incidents at 87 Banyan Drive (former Uncle Billyʻs).
- 1,129 incidents at 121 Banyan Drive (Country Club Condominiums).
Data provided in the resolution also shows, from May 2018 to May 2023, that the Hawaiʻi Fire Department responded to:
- 28 at former Uncle Billyʻs.
- 339 incidents at Country Club Condominiums.
The police calls have run the gamut, including assaults, domestic abuse, drunk people, fires, property damage, behavior disorders, theft, noise complaints, weapons incidents, affrays, trespassing, harassment, drug violations, vandalism and a suicide in a tree.
The fire department calls have been for fires, rescue and EMS services and good intent calls.
While Country Club Condominiums, which has legal tenants, has had significantly more issues, there is a plan in place. The Hawai‘i Board of Land and Natural Resources in April authorized the state Land Department to negotiate a development agreement with Banyan Drive Management of Hilo to conduct a $20 million renovation.
But that is not the case with the former Uncle Billy’s. Lee Loy has worked for months with the community, state legislators and the Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources about how to deal with the abandoned property.
“A significant number of these calls for service/incidents involved activities occurring on or near the premises of the former Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay Hotel and its adjacent parking lot, which have adversely affected the public safety and welfare of the surrounding properties and community,” the resolution said.
The measure urges Green to issue an emergency proclamation to provide relief for damages, losses and suffering — and protect the health, safety and welfare of people affected by the hazardous conditions at the former nearly 150-room hotel on about 2 acres of state-owned land on the Big Island’s Waiakea Peninsula.
The once thriving and popular hotel was a fixture on Banyan Drive for more than 50 years and a favorite for kamaʻāina and visitors alike. But it has become anything but accommodating since its permanent closure in 2017.
It has long been condemned and is dilapidated to the point where most of the rooms are exposed to the elements and debris is strewn throughout the structure.
The former hotel, under the jurisdiction of the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, is now a source of trouble and danger. It has had numerous fires, security issues and illegal activity.
“Despite the best efforts to prevent unauthorized entrance to the complex, many squatters and homeless have been able to gain access into the structures,” said Hawai‘i Fire Department Deputy Chief Eric Moller.
An April sweep of the property by more than three dozen officers from three law enforcement agencies resulted in two people being arrested on outstanding warrants and 10 citations issued for trespassing.
During just the first 3 1/2 months of 2023, Big Island police responded to 12 calls at the property.
In 2023, the Hawai‘i Fire Department has responded to three calls, including one fire, at the former hotel through May. Last year, the hotel had five fires, including one in March that caused an estimated $2 million in damages. There was evidence of cooking and warming fires. There’s also been suspected arson.
“The hazards associated with potential fires could impact surrounding structures and could lead to injuries or loss of life,” Moller said, adding response can be complicated at the site because the measures put in place to keep people out also can hinder firefighting efforts.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources supports any measures or efforts to expedite demolition of the former hotel, according to senior communications manager Dan Dennison. The department last year estimated demolition could cost about $13.5 million.
However, while state legislators did allocate the funds for the project, there is no specific deadline set for demolition to be complete.
“In the meantime, a request for proposals is out to fence the property to keep people out of it until it can be knocked down,” Dennison said, adding bids are due back by mid-July. “Depending on the budget, contractor and supply availability, it’s hoped a fence will be up sometime this summer.”
People are urged to stay out of the building because it is considered a public health and safety hazard.
The hotel opened in the 1960s by William J. Kimi Jr., also known as Uncle Billy. His family owned and operated it until February 2016, when it was sold to Honolulu-based developer Peter Savio and managed by Castle Resorts. The hotel was renamed Pagoda Hilo Bay Hotel, but closed for good in June 2017 after Inspectors found potential health and safety violations.
Issues relating to properties on Banyan Drive have appeared nearly 30 times on Land Board agendas throughout the past six years.
“The [Board of Land and Natural Resources] has kept a close eye on this property over two years and prepared a report on its condition,” said former Land Board Chairwoman Suzanne Case in a June 2017 news release regarding the closure of the former hotel, as quoted in Lee Loy’s proposed resolution. “Recognizing this building was at the end of its useful life and out of an abundance of caution, we are taking steps now to close this chapter and prepare for a new phase of revitalization of Banyan Drive.”
Lee Loy’s resolution says redevelopment of the area is vital to the economy and resilience of Hawai‘i County and an emergency proclamation would allow for the removal of blighted properties that create hazardous conditions and pose a risk to the community.
Resolution 199 is on the agenda for the Council’s Committee on Governmental Operations and External Affairs meeting at 9:30 a.m. on July 5. The meeting will be conducted in council chambers at the Hawai‘i County Building in Hilo. Those who cannot attend in person can watch online by clicking here.