By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Scientists hoping to conquer the final frontier may soon be taking a closer look at Hilo.
The state Senate last week unanimously passed a bill that would establish a special district in the city for companies wanting to advance space exploration and even settlement of other planets.
The “aerospace high-technology district” would offer the businesses tax breaks and other incentives to set up shop there with the expectation that they will work closely with the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems and other programs at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
The House passed the legislation, House Bill 2872, March 6. Representatives from both chambers will next meet to discuss amendments made by the Senate before sending it to Gov. Neil Abercrombie to be signed into law.
Rep. Bob Herkes, one of its sponsors, said the idea was proposed to him by Buzz Aldrin, the famous astronaut and longtime friend.
The District 5 Democrat said Aldrin wants to see a space center developed on the Big Island, where he and other astronauts trained.
“If Buzz wants it, I’m behind it,” he said.
A phone call to Aldrin was not returned.
The bill has other enthusiastic supporters on the island.
Senior staff members at PISCES, a program at the university created to find ways to sustain life in space, say it would go a long way toward making Hilo a center for space research and development.
“The groups we are looking for are not any groups we are able to find here locally,” said Deputy Director John Hamilton. “We’re trying to entice them to come to the island to provide high-tech jobs of the future.”
County Councilman Dennis Onishi, who submitted testimony in favor of the district, said it would be an economic boon for the area.
“We will be having high-tech businesses come in to help provide jobs for our residents on this island,” he said, adding it will also help construction and other industries.
The boundaries of the district, a specially-designated area where aerospace companies must locate to receive the tax breaks, have yet to be defined. The bill says that it must be located within three miles of downtown Hilo.
The idea is to locate them in a single location to foster collaboration, supporters say.
According to the bill, the tax breaks would last for three years and include 25 percent off income and unemployment taxes, and an exemption from general excise and use taxes.
It also says that Hawaii County can provide additional incentives, including breaks on fees and property taxes, and “regulatory flexibility.”
The state Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism would establish the district, which would last until June 30, 2022.
Onishi said he is supportive of the state tax breaks but referred questions regarding county assistance to the administration.
“Whatever breaks we can give them and the state can afford, that’s great,” he said.
Mayor Billy Kenoi couldn’t be reached for comment.
Hamilton said the financial incentives are necessary to attract the businesses.
“No one company wants to come out and be the first person and take risk in these economic times,” he said.
Christian Andersen, PISCES operations manager, said the Big Island is a great place to host such a “research park” to promote human existence in space.
“Those planets are essentially like islands,” he said.
“If you don’t take it with you, you are going to have to make it there using resources that are available.”
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.