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Construction Begins on Veterans and Homestead Center

By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor

The new Ho’olehua Veterans and Homestead Residents Center, located behind Lanikeha Community Center, begins construction this week. The $4 million project, which is planned as a joint use facility by DHHL homesteaders and Molokai veterans, is scheduled to be completed in one year. According to a 2019 building plan, the 6,342 square foot building is slated to include four office spaces, a classroom, meeting room, kitchen, covered outdoor area, storage rooms, indoor and outdoor restrooms and a parking lot.

The origins and goal of the project have caused confusion among community members and veterans. According to a November 2018 story in The Molokai Dispatch, Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans (MVCV) board members say they sought $400,000 in funding a few years previously to complete the Kaunakakai Veterans Center parking lot and other remaining projects. The 3,000-square-foot structure on Wharf Road was finally finished in 2015 after a long struggle through permitting hoops and funding woes.

MVCV was awarded funding – a much larger amount than requested – only to find out that they couldn’t use it for the property. The funding was allocated as Capital Improvement Project (CIP) funds through the Department of Defense and had to be utilized on state land, then-Representative Lynn DeCoite told the Dispatch in 2018. Because the Kaunakakai Veterans Center is on private property owned by the organization, veterans were told they would either have to turn the property over to the state, or forfeit the $4 million.

Former MCVC board member Longie Dudoit said during a 2018 interview that the veterans organization told DeCoite at the time that they would forfeit the funding, as “we worked hard for this place [Kaunakakai Veterans Center].”

DeCoite told the Dispatch in 2018 that instead, she held onto it and considered other options to accommodate the situation before giving up the funding. She said she searched for state land that could be used and “DHHL was more than willing to allow a piece of property to support their veterans.”

The Dispatch reported at the time that it was unclear whose oversight had caused the mixup – along with the discrepancy in the dollar amount. DeCoite said veterans never informed her of their private property status, but veterans say they were previously unaware of the property requirement. No one seemed sure how $400,000 turned into $4 million, either.

The project was greenlighted in 2018, but since then, very little information has been released. Originally scheduled to be constructed by 2020, a DHHL capital improvements update report from April of this year stated that building permits for the project were under review by the County of Maui and construction would begin upon approval. 

Following requests for information, a DHHL spokesperson confirmed the project was slated to begin on Oct. 3. 

“The project includes an assembly building, parking lot, individual wastewater system, utility infrastructure, ground and site improvements, furniture, equipment, furnishings, and appurtenances,” the staffer stated. 

However, DHHL did not provide the Dispatch with additional details requested on the project. Sen. DeCoite’s office did not return requests for comment. 

Henry Keanini, current MVCV secretary, said he’s happy the project is finally moving forward. 

“We’re going to be putting up a $4 million building that the people of Molokai can use. My feeling is that’s a great thing,” he said. “How many times has anyone got $4 million to build anything on this island?… We didn’t give this $4 million back to someone in Honolulu. I’m happy we have another place we can go to.”

Though some veterans and community members say the extra space will be useful, others are confused about the project’s purpose. 

Mike Helm, a veteran whose late father, Larry Helm, served as longtime former commander of MCVC and led the effort to construct the Kaunakakai Veterans Center, said he doesn’t understand why the island needs a second veterans center and pointed out homesteaders already have a community center with Lanikeha just steps away. 

“I just left being a part of the [MCVC] board, [in part] because I heard about this new veterans center/rec center that’s only 200 yards away from the other rec center,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, what a waste of [$4] million…. I see it being used better with all these homesteaders that need new sewer systems… plus a lot of other ways to spend that money than to build another veterans center and another certified kitchen….”

The journey to complete the Kaunakakai Veterans Center was a long and emotional one for many Molokai veterans. The group, under Larry Helm’s leadership, who first envisioned a veterans center on the island in 2001, couldn’t have imagined the decade-long struggle of permitting delays, protests and a lawsuit that would follow. Sixty-three veterans, including Helm, passed away before the building was finally officially opened in 2015. The Kaunakakai property was donated to the veteran organization by Molokai Ranch in 2004. The building boasts three furnished offices, a common area, certified kitchen, four bathrooms and two showers.

Construction of the new Ho’olehua facility will be completed by contractor Diede Construction and is scheduled to last from Oct. 3, 2022 to Oct. 3, 2023, according to DHHL. 

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