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Technology park proposal needs careful vetting

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A planned “Innovation Block,” a $100 million technology park in Kakaako Makai, seems more like a “nice to have” than “need to have” with so many competing needs gunning for funds at the state Legislature come January.

While we support technology and high-wage jobs that the project would bring, compelling specifics will be needed to justify spending that amount of money when schoolchildren are suffering from heat exhaustion in steamy classrooms and projects like the $160 million Hawaii State Hospital renovation are also vying for funds.

Is there really an urgent need for a 5.5-acre technology park?

The techies seem to think so. The project could be realized by 2020 under a plan being advanced by state officials. A draft environmental assessment released Wednesday estimates an initial $39 million phase of the Innovation Block could be completed as early as 2018. The Hawaii Community Development Authority is leading the tech park effort along with the state’s High Technology Development Corp.

The technology park would spur innovation and “create new jobs so that our kids don’t have to leave Hawaii,” said Robbie Melton, HTDC’s executive director. “It’s amazing the growth that we’ve seen in the last two or three years (in) starting companies.”

The concept behind the Innovation Block is to foster collaboration between public and private enterprises by creating physical connections among high-tech development, commercial office, retail and education uses and their communities to promote the exchange of ideas.

Melton said there are no limits to the innovation that could take place within the boundaries of the technology park — everything from optics, sensors, agricultural technology to textiles.

Currently, HTDC has 26 tenant companies at the Manoa Innovation Center, with a growing waiting list, Melton said, noting the companies would move from Manoa to Kakaako Makai.

HTDC would anchor the envisioned technology park in a 13,500-square-foot space dubbed the “Entrepreneur’s Sandbox.”

The project would no doubt complement the redevelopment of Kakaako and would be built on state land just Ewa of the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine and the university’s Cancer Center.

But it would behoove the agencies backing the Innovation Block to develop a stellar business plan and a long list of tenants ready to move in, to bolster its case.

The UH Cancer Center, which opened in Kakaako in 2013, still has vacant space and has struggled financially due to a faulty business plan.

HTDC, created in 1983, has been trying to develop three tech parks in the state and find new facilities to replace what it considers outdated space.

“The Manoa Innovation Center is 23 years old and was not designed to support the rapidly changing technological and infrastructural requirements of commercial high-technology development,” the report said.

In December, HTDC announced its 80/80 plan to create 80,000 tech jobs paying $80,000 by 2030. Melton said a 2013-2014 study on innovation found there are 78,000 technology jobs in Hawaii. In order for technology and innovation to make an impact on Hawaii’s economy, that number would have to double, thus another 80,000 jobs by 2030, she said.

Those are ambitious goals that sound good, and we do want our children to be able to stay in Hawaii — but building a tech park to meet those goals is an expensive commitment, one that requires full analyses of means and return on investment.

Project backers will have their work cut out for them as they lobby for funds at the Legislature. The onus is on them to show that if we build it, the techs will come.

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