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City creates recovery office with federal funds

  • Video courtesy of Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell

    Honolulu officials announced on Tuesday the creation of a new office to help with the city's economic recovery due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Josh Stanbro, the city’s chief resilience officer, spoke Tuesday at a news conference at which Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced the new Office of Economic Revitalization to assist with Oahu’s economic recovery.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Josh Stanbro, the city’s chief resilience officer, spoke Tuesday at a news conference at which Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced the new Office of Economic Revitalization to assist with Oahu’s economic recovery.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and his team unveiled plans Tuesday to use $19 million, or 5%, of the $378 million federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding received by the city to meet short- and long-term economic recovery goals.

The Blaisdell Center’s vacant offices will serve as a physical place for a “recovery hub” and workspace for a new Office of Economic Revitalization by July 1.

“By the end of June, pretty much everything on our island will be opened up except for large gatherings of the entertainment type or sports gatherings,” Caldwell said Tuesday at a news conference. He added that further announcements on reopenings and modifications will be coming in the next couple of days.

City Managing Director Roy Amemiya outlined the plan to replace the Office of Economic Development with the Office of Economic Revitalization and to consolidate all coronavirus response efforts.

He said only 5% of the funds will be used for this new office and that the greatest amount of the funds will be used to get money out to the people.

The first stage is to actively “help those who are hungry or losing their homes,” he said, adding that most of the state’s 220,000 unemployed live on Oahu.

He said it’s not just creating bureaucracy, but about having a central place to come for job fairs at the Blaisdell Exhibition Hall, workforce development — not the city hiring employees, but having nonprofits to perform city jobs such as planting trees, and to use nonprofits to service those in need.

After saying some good came out of the lockdown, like shorter commutes, Amemiya said, “There’s a saying that in every crisis there’s an opportunity, and we certainly want to take advantage of it.”

Rick Keene, executive assistant in the mayor’s office and former chief financial officer of Bank of Hawaii and The Queen’s Medical Center, was selected to head the new office.

With 22% unemployment and things ramping back up slowly, “we need to find different ways to put people back to work,” on a short-term basis, and to “make sure people have food and a place to live,” Keene said.

The city will receive input from all segments of the community.

Keene said, “In the long term the city must chart a new path for a more diverse economy, but that could take a long time and we don’t want to fall back to the status quo.”

The city’s chief resilience officer, Josh Stanbro, said, “Our people have proved to be resilient during a really tough time. Our economy hasn’t proved to be resilient. We’ve gone from the lowest to the highest unemployment because we had a lot of eggs in a couple of baskets.”

The city needs to shift from a health and shutdown focus to an economic recovery plan, he said.

The mayor addressed questions on how to bring back visitors safely to ensure they’re not sick and don’t get people here sick, as well as the question of the number of tourists. He said one thing plaguing his administration has been whether “10 million visitors, is that too much? Maybe fewer but leaving more money on our shores.”

The second stage would be to develop a resiliency plan to become a better community, to rebuild smarter.

“We need to have the capacity to make sure we can accept, coordinate and deploy federal funds that come in and get them to the community as fast as possible and not leave a single dollar on the table,” Stanbro said.

The office also will “be making sure that every dollar is spent toward bending the compass towards a more resilient economy,” he said. “We can spend money on a feeding operation, but if we spend that on a local farmer to do that feeding, that dollar’s going to stay on the island.”

He outlined the plans:

>> Have operations in place to be responsible with the federal funds.

>> Ensure testing is available, and educating businesses to keep COVID-19 low.

>> Determine how to diversify so Honolulu is never in a vulnerable spot again.

The office will focus on how to diversify the economy.

He invited nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and the business community to partner with the city to “change the arc of the economy.”

The city administration is working with the City Council’s Committee on Economic Assistance and Revitalization and partnering with other government sectors.

FOR INFORMATION

How to reopen businesses, nonprofits and resources for small-business loans:

>> Visit OneOahu.org, call 768-CITY or email covidresponse@honolulu.gov.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rick Keene.

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