Call 911: The First Responders Park Bill Is Dying

Rep. Amy Perruso says she won’t advance a bill to fund the state’s first responders campus amid questions about the project’s relevance.

When Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi introduced a measure to provide at least $100 million to build a campus for first responders on 243 acres of agriculture land in central Oahu, the Kauai senator hailed the controversial project as necessary for Oahu’s law enforcement and public safety workers.

“Many existing facilities are outdated and within the inundation zone, and agencies have outgrown their current footprint,” Kouchi’s measure said. “Some agencies lack permanent headquarters, training facilities, and storage space and require the use of leased facilities, which should be invested in permanent assets that are owned and controlled by the State.”

The venture had commitments from agencies including the Hawaii Department of Public Safety and support from Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, a longtime advocate for the Mililani complex, which would be in his district.

There was just one problem: the 2,000 plus-employee Honolulu Police Department testified it had no intention of being part of the campus.

Hawaii Technology Development Corp. First Responders Park
Proposed for prime agriculture land in central Oahu, the First Responders Technology Campus and Cybersecurity Data Center, pictured in an artist’s rendering, would include space for offices, warehouses, a hotel, workforce housing, a community center and an outdoor training area. (Hawaii Technology Development Corp.)

Now, despite support from Hawaii’s two most powerful senators, a project some critics deride as Hawaii’s equivalent of Atlanta’s controversial “Cop City” may have stalled.

Legislative Hurdles

The bill must pass out of the House Higher Education and Technology Committee by Friday to remain alive, and the committee chair has vowed not to let that happen.

Rep. Amy Perruso cited the fact that the police have no plans to use the facility as part of her decision.

Perruso, who is Dela Cruz’s House counterpart representing Oahu’s historically agricultural region, also cited costs. Infrastructure alone for the park will cost the state $150 million, she said, which is three times the annual budget of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

“How could we even look at ourselves in the mirror if we did that,” she said. “It’s ludicrous.”

Rep. Amy Perruso questions whether the Hawaii Technology Development Corp., established to grow Hawaii’s tech business sector, is exceeding its statutory purpose by trying to build a campus and training center for people like firefighters and sheriffs. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Kouchi didn’t respond to a request for comment. But Dela Cruz, who has advocated for the project for years, remains undeterred.

The bill’s death wouldn’t necessarily preclude funding. If Perruso fulfills her promise, money for the project could be put into the state budget, said Len Higashi, executive director of the Hawaii Technology Development Corp., a state agency spearheading the project.

‘Strategic For The Whole State’

In an interview, Dela Cruz shrugged off the fact that the Honolulu Police Department doesn’t want to move into the campus. Dela Cruz noted that other agencies have committed to use the campus facilities, including the Department of Public Safety, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The Hawaii Office of Enterprise Technology Services also wants to move from its current digs, in a flood-prone basement of a government building on Punchbowl Street. Dela Cruz said it makes sense for various first responders to be able to train together and to have their equipment safe from potential flooding.

“It’s strategic for the whole state,” Dela Cruz said.

Not everyone agrees. Alan Burdick co-chairs the Environmental Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. Among other things, Burdick pointed to the project’s possible water needs: an estimated 249,700 gallons per day, plus an additional 228,600 gallons per day of non-potable water for an onsite firefighting training facility. In testimony, Burdick likened the campus to the Atlanta Public Training Center — but noted Hawaii’s project is nearly three times the size of the controversial Georgia facility.

“I’m just stunned that this thing exists on paper,” Burdick said. “It’s astonishing. It’s pretty clear that law enforcement has been communicating with Santa Claus and Santa Claus has agreed to give them a big Christmas present.”

The Hawaii Technology Development Corp.’s proposed project includes two phases. Rep. Amy Perruso, who represents the area, views the acquisition of land formerly used to grow pineapples as a state bailout to former landowner Castle & Cooke. (Hawaii Technology Development Corp.)

The so-called First Responders Technology Campus and Cybersecurity Data Center would be roughly the size of Honolulu’s Kapiolani Regional Park and Honolulu Zoo. A recent presentation shows space for offices, warehouses, a hotel, workforce housing and a community center. Previous plans included a pool and a gym.

A Long Time In The Making

While Perruso said the project has been envisioned for at least a decade, it took a big step forward in 2017 when the Hawaii Technology Development Corp., which was set up to support the development of the state’s technology sector, paid Castle & Cooke $9.8 million to acquire a 150-acre parcel for the project’s first phase.

Perruso questioned whether it was wise for the state to buy that parcel along with a second one to be used by the tech park. She said it’s time for the state to quit spending money on such a major development when the state has more pressing problems, including a housing shortage. 

“I see those purchases as a bailout of Castle & Cooke,” she said. If Hawaii puts even more money into the park, “We’ll be throwing good money after bad.”

She agreed the state’s information technology and emergency management agencies would benefit from new homes but said there are less expensive ways to solve that problem.

She also questioned why an agency established to promote technology businesses was building a facility for soldiers, sheriffs and firefighters. 

Entrepeneurs Sandbox building inside.
Known for projects like Kakaako’s Entrepeneurs Sandbox, the Hawaii Technology Development Corp. is now spearheading a controversial first responder campus in Mililani. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

Questioning The Role Of Technology

On its website the Hawaii Technology Development Corp. says its “programs are focused on building the next generation technology, innovation and manufacturing industries.” It is perhaps best known for operating the Entrepreneurs Sandbox, a stylish co-work space in Kakaako, which the corporation describes as “a community center for innovation” where “people will be able to learn how to bring their ideas into reality.”

But whether the agency has the authority to develop a campus for first responders is an issue.

On one hand, the Hawaii Technology Development Corp.’s enabling statute provides it with broad power to buy and develop land. On the other hand, the HTDC’s statutory duties are to promote development of a tech industry by doing things like “encouraging, initiating, and aiding in the development and commercialization of local innovation and technology” and “developing policy and resource allocations to enable and support start-up companies, sustain existing companies, and attract companies to relocate or establish offices in Hawaii.”

In a committee report after hearing the House companion of Senate Bill 1469, Perruso asked whether the technology development corporation was following this legally mandated purpose.

“Although involved agencies will use cybersecurity technology,” she wrote, “the campus does not appear to proactively develop local commercialized innovation research and technology industries. If the use of technology is sufficient to justify Hawai‘i Technology Development Corporation’s involvement, that would significantly broaden the Corporation’s mandate.”

Higashi said the agency’s involvement ensures a prominent role for technology.

“If we’re involved, technology will be an important consideration,” he said. “The opportunities are great. Augmented reality, virtual reality: that’s all part of modern training centers.”

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