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Planning the future: The Pioneer Mill Company Office Building

By BY CINDY SCHUMACHER - | Apr 9, 2021

From left, George “Keoki” Freeland, Theo Morrison and Kimo Falconer gathered at the Pioneer Mill Company Office Building on Lahainaluna Road to discuss the upcoming community meetings and plans for the future of the mill office. PHOTO BY MICHAEL J. SUMMERS.

LAHAINA — Maui’s rich and diverse history influences our present generation as well as future generations. A current example is the Pioneer Mill Company Office Building, which is listed on the Hawaii Register of Historic Places. The mainstay of West Maui’s economy for many years, the mill office closed down in 1999 after 139 years, marking the end of sugar production for West Maui. The sugar mill was razed in 2006.

Presently, Lahaina Restoration Foundation (LRF) is inviting community members to participate in the process to create a plan for the mill office. After receiving a grant from Maui County in 2020 to conduct community planning for the uses of the building, LRF contracted with Planning Consultants Hawaii, LLC to lead the development process. The foundation is optimistic that residents will offer input in the planning process, since many have often expressed a desire to see the office restored.

“I have been waiting and hoping that COVID-19 restrictions on public meetings would be dropped so that we could hold in-person community meetings,” said LRF Executive Director Theo Morrison.

“However, that does not seem to be the case. Therefore, we have to use Zoom online instead. Our goal is to initiate a collaborative vision about how the mill office could best be used.”

Morrison pointed out that there are some constraints that the community needs to keep in mind. Mainly, the mill office building needs to be able to support itself after it is restored. This means that it has to generate revenue through rental income or some other means to pay for electricity, the cleaning of the common areas, repairs and maintenance. There also needs to be a fund, generated by tenant rent, for large capital improvement or repair projects.

“For example, perhaps the building tenants could be a mix of commercial and nonprofit use,” she explained. “It has also been suggested that the commercial and the nonprofit uses be similar and compatible with each other. For instance, if the community wanted to see the building used as a health center, then there could be community classes on health and wellness. Then there could be for-profit alternative-medicine providers such as acupuncture, chiropractors or maybe even other medical offices.”

Morrison added, “Many people have indicated they would like to see it used as a creative center, so there could be adult and youth art and dance classes, as well as for-profit frame or print shops. Another possible use for part of the building could be government offices that would help offset the operating costs of the building. In all instances, the for-profit ventures would pay for the majority of the operation and maintenance of the building. Other constraints would be parking; activities at the county-built Kaunoa Senior Center, which sits on the same parcel; and what the residents living in the neighborhood think and want. However, being able to use this magnificent building for community purposes will be an incredibly good thing.”

George “Keoki” Freeland, the last plantation manager at Pioneer Mill, grew up in Lahaina during the Plantation Era and worked at the mill for ten years. “I am pleased to hear about LRF’s development plans to restore the mill office building,” he remarked. “The community has long hoped to preserve the building because, like the smokestack, it is a significant part of Lahaina’s history. The old mill office would make a great museum, retail center and office space.”

Remembering the plantation days, Freeland said, “Nearly all the work done on the plantation was done without machinery. Therefore, there were thousands of employees living in camps from Olowalu to Honolua. The plantation provided for everything, including company stores, cattle ranch, schools and much more. The main office building on Lahainaluna Road was also the financial facility for the plantation. The general manager, the field superintendent, the office manager and the Agricultural Research Department all had offices in this building. It is such a historic space to preserve Lahaina Town’s history.”

Kimo Falconer, former Pioneer Mill director of agriculture, recalled, “I remember the last day when the office shut its door in 1999. I was there. It was such a lively two-story office, and it remains an amazing building filled with incredible memories. Since its last days, I have thought about the office being restored. No matter what the theme of the building is, I hope that a plantation museum is part of it. There is so much history to be shared with our future generations.”

Past Pioneer Mill Cultivation Assistant Clifford Corniel reminisced, “The office building and sugar mill are a grand memory for me. I lived right next door to the mill and I knew everybody. It was a family atmosphere. There was a diverse group of people — all nationalities from all over the world. We worked hard together and we all got along. I also hope the restored office building will display the history of the life we lived in those days. It is part of who I am.”

Louisa van der Linden Shelton, a member of the LRF Board of Directors, reflected on the upcoming project, “I feel that preserving this historic building can help maintain our links with Lahaina’s past and provide a keen sense of place and worth for our community. Similarly to the Pioneer Mill Company Smokestack, this venerable building is one of the icons of Lahaina, representing much history of the Plantation Era. I was born and raised in Lahaina when my father, Louis van der Linden, worked in Industrial Relations and Land Management for Pioneer Mill/Amfac. My memories of the office building were from a time when it was full of vigor. I am thrilled that there is now an opportunity to explore returning it to a more productive life. I encourage all who are interested, and especially those who can share their stories, to join in these upcoming planning meetings.”

In 2010, the Pioneer Mill Company Office approached its centennial anniversary as the first board-formed concrete building to have been constructed on West Maui and possibly the third of its type to be built on the entire island.

The existing structure was erected during the politically stormy period leading up to World War I, on a site chosen mauka of Lahaina Town at 380 Lahainaluna Road. Overlooking the company’s sugar mill, the building was completed in 1910 but has been vacant since 1999 when the mill closed.

Founded in the 1860s, the mill at one time farmed more than 14,000 acres spread across 16 miles of slopes above Lahaina. With the exception of the mill’s smokestack that was erected in 1928, the mill office is the only extant building that is directly associated with the company’s long-term operation.

The building has two stories, with the basement serving as a fully functioning level containing numerous office spaces. The front entry of the building features original one-over wood sash, paneled and glazed wood, wood transoms, and a molded concrete signage band with company name and date of construction.

The mill office, both the commercial building that was constructed in 1910 and an addition that was constructed in 1947, remained in use until the company ceased operations.

Morrison concluded, “Through the years, many concerned residents have contributed their ideas to help shape the West Side. The collaborative efforts of elected officials, developers, contractors and residents become a reality when we all work together. The vision and decision for the Pioneer Mill Office will be reached when we share the goal collectively. It is important to realize that it takes time and patience, from the idea through the process, to make it feasible. Community collaboration and coordination are key. We hope the building will serve the public for many generations to come.”

The community is invited to join the two upcoming Pioneer Mill Office community planning meetings via Zoom on Wednesday, April 21, at 5:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 8, at 2 p.m. E-mail Kimberly@lahainarestoration.org to receive a link to join the Zoom online meetings.