Ho’olehua Veterans Center Stirs Controversy
A proposed, controversial $4 million veterans center in Ho’olehua is moving forward, amid high emotions among veterans and confusion about the project’s origins. The proposed 7,000 square foot building to be located behind Lanikeha Community Center will house Veterans Affairs services, as well as a meeting room, classroom and office spaces, a kitchen and covered outdoor gathering area and serve as a joint facility with the Dept. of Hawaiian Homelands.
Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans (MVCV) board members say they sought $400,000 in funding a few years ago to complete the Kaunakakai Center parking lot and other remaining projects. The 3,000-square-foot structure on Wharf Road was finally completed 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, according to Rep. Lynn DeCoite. 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.
“They came back and said, ‘Do you own the property?’” former board member Longie Dudoit recalled. “We said ‘yes,’ and they said, ‘We cannot give you the CIP funding because it has to be turned over to the state.’ The board said, ‘No way, we worked hard for this place.’”
DeCoite said the board told her they would forfeit the money, but instead, she said 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.”
“I said [to the veterans], ‘You guys have another opportunity, if we have state land and you folks want to have another facility…’” she said. “They took it to heart, they said why not have a facility in Ho’olehua.”
What’s unclear is whose oversight 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 unaware of the property requirement. No one seems sure how $400,000 turned into $4 million, either.
The Final Environmental Assessment (EA) released earlier this month simply states that “State Department of Defense funding was appropriated as a Capital Improvement Project instead of a Grant-In-Aid project. Therefore, funds for this legislation could only be used for projects on State lands.”
DeCoite said there are more than 400 Molokai veterans and “the majority of those vets are Native Hawaiian” so the new facility would serve both veterans and homesteaders. DeCoite added that another goal of the project is to provide an emergency facility. She said with rising sea levels, it’s likely that the Kaunakakai center could be inundated by flooding, and therefore a move to higher ground makes sense.
“Since the money was going back anyway, [we figured] why not [partner with DHHL],” said Dudoit. “We were only looking for the best option.”
Current MVCV Commander Sam Makaiwi called the proposed project a “blessing.”
“It’s right by my house,” said Makaiwi, adding that because of its proximity to the high school, he could bring in military-based educational opportunities for students. “I want to occupy the new building… Having a vet center in Ho’olehua is awesome.”
But not all veterans are as happy about the project.
Veteran Sam Kealoha has been a vocal opponent of the project, writing letters in the Dispatch calling the project a “scam of appropriations.”
“Without consultation, the present and reelected leadership of our nonprofit veterans organization has yet to present this proposed scheme to the membership for approval or disapproval,” he wrote of the project in January.
He’s not the only veteran member to say they were not informed of the process and felt left in the dark by the Board of Directors.
A committee formed to investigate the project following a general membership meeting in early February was told by the board that membership approval for the project was not needed, citing the organization’s bylaws, which state, “The Board shall have exclusive power and control over all assets and contributions and any distribution of items.”
In addition to rising tensions, many say they feel a second veterans center simply isn’t necessary.
“There is no need for two veterans centers, Molokai is too small for duplicates,” said Barbara Helm, wife of the late Larry Helm, former MVCV commander and longtime veteran advocate. “This center [in Kaunakakai] was to serve all veterans, their families and the Molokai community. It was supposed to be a safe place to fellowship and be welcomed and get in touch with [VA] representatives.”
Veteran George Kahinu agreed.
“It’s hard for me to understand why we need two vet centers on the island of Molokai,” he said. “Let’s make one work for everyone.”
In the meantime, the project received a green light from the EA’s Finding of No Significant Impact.
“The new building is designed to serve both the veterans and residents’ needs by providing health, medical and social services, as well as serve as a relief shelter during natural disasters,” states the EA document.
DeCoite said once the facility is completed, the keys would be turned over to MVCV. But the EA isn’t as clear — it states, “the facility will be managed by an entity other than DHHL, which will be determined after construction.” The document also mandates construction begin by June 2020.
DHHL staff did not provide comments following a request for information.
The journey to complete the Kaunakakai Veterans Center was a long and emotional one for many Molokai veterans. The group who first envisioned a veterans center on the island in 2001, led by Helm, 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.
When asked what would happen to the existing veterans center, Makaiwi said “new leadership is going to use this building.”
The project has worsened a rift that has taken place in recent years among some of veteran members and the board. Many leaders in the group are now calling for unification.
“My vision is just to bring veterans back together again and let’s get these guys help who need help – that… should be the number one priority for our veterans center,” said Kahinu.
A MVCV General Membership meeting will be held on Dec. 7 at the Kaunakakai Veterans Center at 5 p.m.