Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hilo Hawaii - Downtown Dynamo - Meet Alice Moon

Hilo Downtown's Dynamo - Meet Alice Moon 
- One of the Big Island's Most Impressive Personalities - 

Stay at Hale Moana Bed & Breakfast and visit Hilo, sweet pearl of the Pacific, - only 30 minutes away:

Article by Denise Laitinen
It’s a postcard-perfect morning in downtown Hilo, with bright blue skies and Hilo Bay sparkling in the sunlight—the kind of day that makes you feel lucky to live in Hawai‘i. With the Farmers’ Market in full swing and a cruise ship docked in the harbor, downtown Hilo is bustling with activity. Nowhere is it more so than around the Mo’oheau Bus Terminal and the office of the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association (DIA). Tourists and residents are walking about, many stopping in the DIA office to ask questions. A Hilo Hula Days performance, sponsored by Hilo DIA every day a cruise ship is in town, has drawn a crowd at the Mo’oheau bandstand.

In the midst of all this activity, Alice Moon is pointing out times and places on the County’s bus schedule to a pair of visitors outside the Hilo DIA office. The couple has no idea that the unassuming, friendly redhead is actually the Executive Director of DIA or that she is the powerhouse behind many events that have become synonymous with downtown Hilo.

Anyone who has lived in Hilo for any length of time has probably attended an event established and coordinated by the creative, passionate and persuasive Alice Moon, whether they realize it or not. From Shakespeare performances in the park to slack key music, World Heritage Days to Chinese New Year festivals and her signature Black and White Night, Alice has dreamed up and tackled the massive job of coordinating a litany of community events that help make Hilo a special place to live. It’s a testament to the power of one person that over the years tens of thousands of people have enjoyed special events in East Hawai‘i because of Alice.

For her, it’s about “creating a place where the quality of life is high for everybody because the people who live here are all part of the community,” she says taking a break during a lull in activity at the DIA office. “Downtown Hilo is such as small area and it has so much to offer. I want to bring people together to celebrate what we have.”

“This is my dream job,” says Alice. “I’d like to be here till I can’t be anywhere else. I want to continue to enlighten and enliven the area.”

It’s a dream job that keeps her on her toes. In addition to managing the Hilo Information Center at the bus depot where she and her staff answer tens of thousands of questions a year, Alice is in the midst of planning an upcoming community festival, collaborating with a variety of folks on downtown Hilo’s new community garden program (see sidebar), assisting with the Envision Downtown Hilo 2025 project as one of its vision keepers, working with a myriad of agencies on various community programs, and reporting to the DIA Board of Directors.

With Alice at the helm, Hilo DIA has been busy in recent years. A promotional banner program was implemented to brighten Kamehameha Avenue and promote special events. To improve public safety, Alice helped obtain a grant from the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority to install security cameras downtown. A beautification project was undertaken with a mural painted along the side of KTA in partnership with artist Kathleen Kam, East Hawai‘i Cultural Center and KTA superstores.

Her position is one where someone could easily get mired in politics and ego, bogged down dealing with so many different organizations and agendas. Or she could coast on the past glory of her many successful events. But Alice is neither a slacker nor one to take on airs. She sees her job as one that truly “helps improve the quality of life for everyone in the community. Whether rich or poor we all deserve a high quality of life. It has a lot to do with building events and building a sense of pride in where people come from,” she says.

Alice is proud to call Hilo home. Her family moved to Keaukaha when she was four years old. Upon graduating from Hilo High School in 1974, Alice spent several years working in the restaurant business, including stints at then-popular locales such as KK Tei and Apple Annie’s, where she worked her way up to assistant manager. In the 1980s she moved to Chicago, got married, and continued to work in the restaurant industry until health issues forced her to take an office job. She found herself working in the alumni and development office of the National College of Chiropractic. It was a turning point in her career, even if she didn’t realize it at the time.

“We did events in the restaurant business, but I got much more involved in event planning at the College,” says Alice. That experience served her well. In 1990, she returned to Hilo with years of fundraising and event planning experience under her belt.

Looking around for a job, Alice’s father, a University of Hawai‘i-Hilo English professor, told her that the university had just hired a Development Coordinator at the college. “At the time, schools in Hawai‘i were just starting to understand the need for alumni fundraising and development,” says Alice. “I interviewed with the new development director and she hired me as her assistant.”

While working in the university setting, Alice soon recognized the need for a college degree for herself. So she went back to school full time and earned a Bachelors degree in English at UH-Hilo. As might be expected, Alice was very active in the Student Activities Council and helped plan several large festivals for the school. Among the events she created was the Community Resource Fair, an event that continues to this day. She also got involved in the Big Island Slack Key Festival, helping coordinate the event and writing grants to cover its expenses.

It was also during college that Alice started coordinating an event called Black and White Night. At the time, the event was sponsored by the Keawe Collection:  a group of businesses along Keawe Street in downtown Hilo that wanted to draw customers to their various businesses.

“They worked collaboratively to bring people up to Keawe Street from the main drag [of Kamehameha Avenue]” says Alice. “That hui understood the power of collaborative marketing and pooling their dollars.” At the time she had no idea that Black and White Night would become her signature event or that it would turn into an annual celebration drawing thousands of people to downtown Hilo. Back then she was just trying to juggle studies and work.

Throughout college, Alice worked as a bartender at the former Harrington’s to pay her way through school.  “In addition to working and coordinating events, I still managed to graduate,” says Alice with a laugh.
After graduation Alice continued working in the restaurant business until she got a job with the Hilo Main Street Program as Project Manager for DIA. Alice wound up working at the Association from 1995 to 1997.  It was, she admits, a tough time both for the organization and the community.

“It was kind of a heartbreak job,” says Alice. “Funding for the program had been cut drastically, we were in a recession, and the last of the sugar plantations were closing, causing Hilo to sink into its own recession.” Times were tough. Events like Black and White Night ceased happening because most of the businesses on Keawe Street that had been involved in the project had either moved or gone out of business. When the organization ran out of money in 1997, Alice found herself once again looking for a job.

Borders Books was about to open in Hilo and they were in need of a community relations coordinator. For the next three and a half years, Alice planned dozens of events at the store, from book signings to live music and theatrical presentations of Shakespeare. “Working at Borders helped to reconnect me with the artistic community in Hilo,” says Alice.

During her years at Borders, Alice continued to help coordinate community events such as the Big Island Slack Key Festival. In 2001, she decided to make the leap to work on her own and launched her own promotions and event planning company: Alice Moon and Company. Her first client was Dr. Bob Ballard (famous for discovering the wreck of the Titanic) and they soon produced the Jason Project: a program designed to connect kids around the world studying the same thing at the same time.

With her own company, Alice started putting on more and more events. She revived Black and White Night and was finally able to implement her longtime dream of turning it into a town-wide event. Meant to draw people to downtown Hilo, it now has a decade of successfully achieving her goal.

Attendees are encouraged to wear black and white clothing, with a costume contest and prizes for creative outfits. Many businesses stay open late and offer special promotions and/or entertainment. Live music echoes throughout the streets and sidewalks. A map/stamp game helps draw people into businesses. Participants are given a map of vendors and a stamp card. They visit vendors around downtown Hilo, collecting stamps on their card, which is then entered into a contest to win prizes. It’s an excellent way to learn more about businesses in downtown Hilo.

“I’m pretty certain that when asked, anyone who attends Black and White Night will say they discovered something new about downtown Hilo, whether it be a restaurant, community garden, or gift shop.”
“In 2001, we had about 20 businesses on the map and about 500-700 people participate,” says Alice. “In 2011, we had 70+ businesses on the map and 14,000-15,000 people attended.”  This past year Alice, in partnership with the Hawai‘i Alliance for a Local Economy, added a “Think Local, Buy Local” campaign as part of the event to encourage people to buy from local merchants.

Another well-known community event for which Alice is responsible is the annual Chinese New Year Festival. February 2012 marked ten years of the popular, free festival at Kalākaua Park that features Chinese and Hawaiian cultural displays, entertainment, demonstrations, crafts, food and, of course, lion dances.
The two events were just some of the many that Alice oversaw at her business. Putting on one large-scale successful event per year can be a strain for anyone. To manage two large events with a myriad of other ones throughout the year can take a toll on a person year after year. A debilitating economic downturn didn’t help things either. So in 2009, she returned to DIA as its executive director. An event planner to the core, Alice had one condition: to continue running Black and White night and Chinese New Years.

Like other small, non-profits, Hilo DIA struggles to do more with less while still responding to the needs of the community and local businesses. Alice is proud of the work that DIA has accomplished through its many community initiatives. “We’ve built a reputation as a ‘go-to’ place,” she says.
What’s next for Alice Moon? She points out that November 2012 marks 50 years for the Hilo DIA. “I’d like to think DIA will be around for another 50 years and I’d like to be part of that growth.”
Contact writer Denise Laitinen at wahineokekai@yahoo.com.

Hilo Downtown Improvement Association website:

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