Nonprofit group spearheads Wahiawa transformation

 UPDATED 9:27 PM HST May 03, 2013
Wahiawa Transformation
WAHIAWA, Hawaii -

Where a strip club, brothel and adult video arcade once stood, businesses have now taken root. It's part of an ongoing transformation in Wahiawa, the Central Oahu town that used to be known for its pineapples, but in more recent times, was better known for prostitution, drug dealing and crime.

"You used to drive into Wahiawa, and you would see all of this," said Anita Acohido. "I've been a lifelong resident of Wahiawa, and I like the way it looks today."

Many local residents point to the nonprofit group Surfing the Nations as the trigger that helped kick-start Wahiawa's makeover. The nonprofit group bills itself as an organization dedicated to making positive changes throughout the world.

In December of 2008, Surfing the Nations began purchasing properties along Wahiawa's unofficial red-light district, located on Kamehameha Highway between California and Olive avenues. After investing about $4 million, the change is dramatic.

"It's pretty amazing to hear the little bit older generation just 100 percent compliment you and say, 'Thank you for coming,' or 'We're so glad you're hear,' or 'I never used to walk on that side of the street,'" said Zach Ifland, director of operations for Surfing the Nations. "It's really cool."

The nonprofit opened a cafe, the Surfers Coffee Bar, and began leasing some of its properties to local businesses and entrepreneurs. Mobi PCS moved in, as did first-time business owners Zach and Lisa Batalona, who opened The Dawgs Grill, a gourmet hotdog eatery.

"We've moved in businesses that are community-friendly, (and) that was a big thing," said Cindy Bauer, Surfing the Nations' executive director.

Soon after the once seedy block began its transformation, new businesses not associated with Surfing the Nations followed suit. Teddy's Bigger Burgers opened next to Papa John's Pizza in April, 2012, followed by national drug store retailer Walgreens a few months later. Wendy's also made a comeback late last year with one of its new modern store designs, after leaving Wahiawa four years earlier.

"This whole area now is basically good department stores, drug stores, and we have churches here," said Ben Acohido, a former member of the Wahiawa Neighborhood Board. "I kind of predict for the next five or 10 years, there will be a lot of improvements in this particular area."  

Still, even with the notable changes taking place in the old pineapple town, stereotypes are hard to shake. Some still see Wahiawa as a place a person should drive through, rather than a friendly town to stop and get a bite to eat, do some shopping, or even raise a family.

"There are some judgmental attitudes I guess looking down on Wahiawa," said Surfing the Nations branding and media director Gisele Pitot, "but we believe there's value in every place, and we're going to bring that to wherever we go in the world."

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