What should be done to revitalize Hilo’s historic Banyan Drive? Poll results are mixed
July 30, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
Revitalization and redevelopment of Banyan Drive, known for decades as the “Hilo Walk of Fame” because of the banyan trees planted by celebrities lining the roadway, received a boost earlier this month.
Hawai‘i Gov. Josh Green issued an emergency proclamation to help solve the public health and safety issues caused by the former Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay Hotel, which has become a haven for crime, drugs, squatters and other illicit and illegal activities. The state anticipates demolition of the once iconic hotel could begin by the end of this year.
But it’s just one step. There’s more work to do to transform Banyan Drive and a lot of ideas about how the area on the Big Island’s Waiākea Peninsula should look in the future.
Big Island Now’s most recent poll asked readers what they think should be included in revitalization plans.
“Hilo has a great coastline. Of course they should tear down Uncle Billy’s in Hilo,” said Hereford Wolfe of Cary, N.C.
Cary lived on the Big Island from 2008-12 and again in 2014 and 2016. He was fortunate to be able to stay at Uncle Billy’s before it’s closure and is a former guest of Hilo Reeds Bay Hotel, which is also on Banyan Drive. He said if Banyan Drive was more like downtown Kailua-Kona, it would “really pull in the money.”
Demolition of Uncle Billy’s was the top choice, with 30% of the 898 votes cast last week.
The other 70% was spread among several options. Adding retail and commercial spaces received 13% of the votes, followed by improved and safer walking access along Banyan Drive, garnering 10%. Improving Reed’s Bay Beach Park, which in next door to the Reed’s Bay hotel, got 9%, and rounding out the top five was new opportunities for nightlife, such as bars and restaurants, with 8% of the total.
Here are the full poll results:
- Demolition of the former Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay Hotel: 270 (30%).
- Additional retail/commercial spaces: 124 (13%).
- Better and safer walking access: 91 (10%).
- Improvements to Reed’s Bay Beach Park: 81 (9%).
- New opportunities for nightlife, such as bars and restaurants: 78 (8%).
- More park space: 77 (8%).
- Other (leave a comment to explain): 68 (7%).
- More hotel space/new hotel: 60 (6%).
- Renovation of the former Country Club Condominiums: 36 (4%).
- Golf course improvements: 13 (1%).
Total votes: 898.
Don Baker said that while some are more doable than others, a master plan for the Banyan Drive area should include all nine of the specific poll options. Klay Lazo agreed, adding more hotel rooms are definitely needed.
“You can revitalize going about the ‘conservative’ route, but without more hotel rooms there is no way Hilo will be able to attract more tourists to support enough tourism in the area,” Lazo commented. “Hence why major airlines don’t want to invest in flying into Hilo because of the lack of infrastructure. As beautiful as it is, Hilo’s beauty alone won’t attract enough tourists.”
Some readers advocated for a new high-rise hotel.
“Obviously the run-down hotels should be demolished and replaced with a new high-rise hotel with a nice restaurant and bar and entertainment on the top floor,” commented Bett Bidleman. “That would attract both tourists and locals, with ample parking and park-like landscaping around it. Hotel amenities should cater to both visitors and residents.”
Lazo replied that a high-rise hotel would help avoid occupying more land than necessary.
“Hilo has got potential,” he said. “It’s just the lack of infrastructure in Hilo that’s preventing tourism in the area.”
Others thought it was not a good idea.
“I’d hate to see another bland high-rise go in such a beautiful place,” Amy Stone said. “A hotel is fine, but tastefully done to match Hilo Bay’s beauty and culture.”
Another reader said redevelopment of Banyan Drive provides the perfect opportunity to revitalize the waterfront without the same old glut of high-rise eyesores.
A reader commenting on Facebook said Hilo would benefit greatly from a true resort with a five-star restaurant, pools and grounds for tourists and residents alike: “We have so little tourist income and we have everything beautiful for people to see and share.”
Other ideas not included in the poll options also were expressed by several readers.
One suggested following demolition of the former Uncle Billy’s, the site should be turned into parking space. The same reader said a frequent water taxi through either Hilo Bay or the Wailoa Harbor waterway could be a good addition to ferry tourists and locals to historic Downtown Hilo.
Amy Pierce thinks revitalization of the Banyan Drive area should include a dog park or beach: “We do not have any areas on this side of the island where dogs can socialize and run free.”
Others said a cultural center or museum, highlighting Native Hawaiian arts and crafts, would be a great fit for the area.
Once demolition of Uncle Billy’s is finished and the area is again open, one Facebook user said maybe an open-air space, “with of course great landscape,” featuring local produce and food and Hawaiian cultural opportunities would be good for people who don’t want to go too far from Banyan Drive. It also would keep the area “busy and watchful.”
Another reader said redevelopment plans should include something for the keiki. That could mean mini golf, climbing walls, a water playground, a roller rink, a trampoline park, batting cages and more. A cultural museum also could offer activities for kids to learn and adventure with aloha.
Some also hope new signs can be added under the banyan trees planted by celebrities and properly maintained. One said a full-height statue of William J. “Uncle Billy” Kimi Jr., who opened the former hotel in the 1960s, should be placed at the entrance to the Banyan Drive area.
Stone said to think more family friendly, with safe walking paths, parks with swings and treehouses. It could be a modern approach with throwbacks to the past and island culture, which could include a tiki bar, local artisans and designers, and shops and restaurants. She also said renovations to other downtrodden properties on Banyan Drive, such as the former Country Club Condominiums, are warranted and should include more affordable housing, especially for those who work in the area.
“This area has so much potential to be an example of how culture, environment and tourism can collaborate to help guide the standard of Hawai’i tourism,” Stone commented. “Hilo is the perfect place for that, with its rich history and culture.”