LIHUE — As Jessie Hirano sat and listened to the music during Saturday night’s Rice Street Block Party, she looked around at the crowd.
Then, she smiled. She was pleased.
“I think this is a wonderful thing that has happened to Rice Street,” she said. “It’s nice to see so many people who are here tonight to celebrate for the first time. I think it’s a real, real big success.”
Hirano, a resident at the Regency at Puakea, said she would like to see more done with Rice Street, including a weekly block party, or a similar celebration to bring people together.
“I think it would be a very good thing for Kauai,” she said. “I think it would be for the better and I would like to see that continue.”
Thousands turned out for the first Rice Street Block Party.
While music by First Cut energized everyone within hearing distance, green balloons fluttered, keiki wore glow sticks and even played chess on a giant board. Many people strolled and checked out the car show, visited food vendors or simply visited with friends.
Rice Street from the Rice Shopping Center to Hardy and Kalena streets was closed from 3 to 9:30 p.m. for the community party.
It was everything organizers hoped — and more. The crowd was estimated at several thousand.
“It’s a testament of people’s desire to improve Rice Street, to get something happening on Rice Street,” said Bev Brody, director of Get Fit Kauai.
The idea was to have family fun, but also to let folks see what the proposed Rice Street improvements will look like as a part of the Lihue Town Core Mobility and Revitalization Project, as well as experience art, culture, food, shopping, entertainment and the history of Rice Street.
The project is being funded through a $13.8 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant that the county received. A goal is to improve connectivity and safety, and serve as a catalyst for the economic revitalization of the Lihue Town Core.
Lee Steinmetz, county transportation planner wearing a green shirt with the words, “We make Rice,” was delighted, even a bit surprised, at the turnout.
“This is incredible,” he said.
Steinmetz said long-time residents will tell you Rice Street was once the commercial hub of Lihue. As surrounding areas developed, Rice Street lost that role.
But people want an authentic main street and Rice Street can provide it. It has some stalwarts, like Garden Island Barbecue and Masa’s Sushi Restaurant. Hamura Saimin is just off Rice on Kress. Kauai Beer Company opened four years ago, followed by Ha Coffee Bar.
Steinmetz said he is seeing more interest in Rice Street from developers and residents, and the block party was proof of that.
He said the event started as a county initiative and Lihue businesses in the area gradually stepped in.
“This whole thing is business driven now,” Steinmetz said.
Ryan and Cari Hunter live at Kalapaki Villas on Rice Street and attended the block party. They like to walk to Kauai Beer Company occasionally and enjoying shopping at Robert’s Jewelry on Kress.
They support revitalizing the area and would like to see traffic flow improved.
“Maybe leave four lanes and no street parking,” Ryan Hunter said. “I still think there’s too much volume of traffic for just two lanes.”
Spruced-up building fronts and perhaps a few more restaurants with outdoor seating would be welcome, too, Ryan Hunter said.
“Because the atmosphere is so nice here,” he said.
Larry Feinstein, Kauai Beer Company spokesman, said when the brewpub opened in 2013, nothing much was happening on Rice Street.
It was so dead, he said they thought maybe their beer company was a bad idea. But gradually, it grew. More people began sitting inside and out to have a beer and talk story. And having food trucks on Thursday night proved wildly popular.
Now, Kauai Beer Company is an anchor on Rice Street, considered a leader in its revitalization. It is posting strong sales and is becoming an institution for many.
It wasn’t so much they were smart as lucky, Feinstein said.
“We caught a wave before you could actually see it, so we were a bit ahead of the curve,” he said.
With the sale of the Salvation Army building just up the street, that will open the door for more retailers and other consumer-oriented businesses. An art gallery is inevitable, he said.
He expects Rice Street will continue to grow and will again become the heart of Lihue.
“It’s now kind of unstoppable,” Feinstein said. “It has already begun.”
“This kind of energy, it’s a huge amount of energy. So when it starts moving, you either get in with it or it will kind of push you aside,” he said. “You don’t fight and hold on to the way it used to be. This is the future of downtown. Its face is changing.”