By TREENA SHAPIRO
HONOLULU — For almost a decade, a push to draw more Korean visitors to Hawaii has spurred the growth of the Korean business district in urban Honolulu.
A Korean “super-block,” anchored by a Palama Super Market, sits at the corner of Kalakaua Avenue and Makaloa Street. It’s one of several strip malls that cater to Korean customers.
Two state lawmakers — Rep. Sharon Har and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz — have proposed turning the area stretching a few blocks west from the Palama Super Market into a formal Koreatown.
The resolution reflects that Koreans are one of the fastest growing Asian groups in the United States, as well as one of the fastest growing visitor groups to Hawaii. The state’s Korean population is about 24,200, according to the 2010 census.
Since the U.S. established a Korean visa waiver program in 2008, the number of Korean visitors to Hawaii has increased dramatically. The program allows Koreans to spend up to 90 days in the country without a visa.
In 2008, about 38,000 Koreans entered Hawaii. In 2011, that number grew to more than 100,000.
A House committee will hear a resolution on the matter April 12, after postponing discussion Thursday. “I want to make sure everyone has ample opportunity to testify, either in opposition or support,” Har explained.
Community support is critical for the creation of a special district, noted state Office of Planning Director Jesse Souki.
Souki said a Koreatown is a great idea in concept, but he submitted testimony opposing the resolution if the package lacks adequate funding and support staff.
If the resolution passes, his staff, in cooperation with city planners, would likely go out and determine what the community wants. “We can’t plan in a vacuum,” Souki noted.
Jeff Chung, general manager of Korean-language station KBFD-TV, said that for a lot of Koreans, the area under consideration is already considered a “pseudo-Koreatown.”
He expects a formal designation would generate community support and attract more Korean visitors. “Every once in a while, they’ll want to have a spicy meal,” he said. “They’ll definitely be attracted to one of the restaurants there.”
Property owners in the area — both in Hawaii and in Korea — have put in significant effort to revamp the area and draw in more Korean and local businesses, Chung notes. He’d be pleased to see more Korean-themed design, as seen in other cities, such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. “If they could pull it off, it would be very visually appealing and unique,” Chung said.
Souki thinks it can be done, with city, state and private support. “If property owners are willing to invest in a plan like that, and it’s what the community wants, it’s something that could happen,” he said.
Karl Kim, a University of Hawaii professor of urban and regional planning, was unfamiliar with the proposed resolution but commented on the concept in email from Korea.
“Already, this area serves as a gathering location with many businesses that cater not just to Koreans but others interested in this vibrant, dynamic culture and it’s connections to Hawaii,” he noted. “A greater emphasis on cultural, historical and artistic spaces which showcase our state’s strong ties with Korea should be integrated into the planning, design and development of this area.”
Kim thinks legislative support for a Koreatown would help strengthen Hawaii’s already strong ties with Korea and offer positive benefits for the community as a whole.