Big Island, big development, small wages

Jade Eckardt

It had been eight months since I had been home to the Big Island. I anticipated the sweet and moist scent of the Hilo air I always noticed getting off the plane since I was a kid. It was still there—the Hilo humidity as thick as ever. On the first day of my trip the weather was typical Hilo: overcast, humid, warm with sun and rain on and off and Mauna Kea standing as the backdrop.

I had left Oahu looking forward to the relaxed feeling of the Big Island with lots of aloha where strangers make a point to wave at each cruising down highway. I was planning on visiting the Puna boonies where I grew up, the wet jungle of Waa Waa, and the rolling black lava hills of Kalapana.

The east side had changed though. Wal-Mart has been refurbished and repainted, and Oahu’s Down to Earth health food store had replaced the local Island Naturals. (Island Naturals had moved downtown.) Most shocking, though, was the news of the new Safeway and Target set to go in right behind Wal-Mart on property that belongs to the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, as the Wal-Mart property does. I recently read this statement by former DHHL director Micah Kane in a Honolulu Star-Bulletin article: “DHHL is committed to building homes for native Hawaiians, but also to improving the quality of life for everyone in the surrounding area. The development of these retail stores goes against the trend in this down economy, but it shows that Safeway and Target are confident about their future in Hilo, and that says a lot about the Big Island.”

Having grown up on the east side of the Big Island, I have a hard time seeing how more big box stores like Target will improve the quality of life for people on the Big Island. There is already a Target in Kona and an existing, very large, Safeway right across the street from the new location. Wal-Mart seems to sufficiently provide Hilo with all the low priced household goods and high tech goodies that people buy whether they can or cannot afford them. Hilo and Puna are both home to many families and single people living on food stamps or other low incomes. While the County of Hawaii spends $400k on new office furniture, and DHHL will collect an estimated $60 million for the lease of 15 acres for the two new stores rather than building affordable housing on the property, the houseless population throughout Hawaii is growing, and so is the number of food stamp recipients.

Driving out to Pahoa, which used to consist of a single street with a few restaurants, a quick stop grocery store, a small health food store, and a few other businesses, I was shocked by more development. A Long’s Drugs, a KFC, and Burger King are all being constructed just off of the Pahoa bypass. The fast food chains are rumored amongst “Punaticks” to be supported by Puna Councilwoman Aunty Emily Naeole. Aunty Emily was also reportedly pushing for a law to allow land owners in Puna to be allowed to live on their property for 2 or 3 years under blue tarps if they need to—now that sounds like the Puna I know. In Puna, people are living on their property in tarps and un-permitted homes whether it’s legal or not. With high rents, they have no choice. Kane said that Safeway and Target are confident about their future in Hilo. I don’t see how hundreds of new minimum wage or slightly higher paying jobs for people who have to pay high rents or mortgages after the now-mellowing real estate boom boosts their confidence.

In a time when hopes of sustainability is growing, new fast food restaurants and stores like Target don’t appear to be the answer. Instead of enticing Big Islanders with the latest plasma TVs, Whoppers, and Isaac Mizrahi for Target clothing, smart use of the island’s land would be more appropriate. The Big Island is about twice as big as all the other islands combined, which shows that DHHL could actually be leasing, giving, or selling land affordably to Hawaiians or other residents instead of to huge corporate, non-local companies that will only deplete the incomes of locals.

The island that is still growing in size thanks to Kilauea Volcano has all but two of the world’s climate zones, enough variability and space to grow food and house people. I have a friend over there with a degree from UH Hilo in agriculture. She wants to find away to start a State funded community farm to teach people how to grow food and raise animals to contribute to a sustainable island lifestyle. That sounds like a good idea to me. I wonder if DHHL would donate land for something like that?

The Big Island is changing. Kona highways now have four lanes. New subdivisions are being built even in the falling real estate market. The old, bumpy, windy, and narrow Saddle Road has been re-routed, re-paved, and is now four lanes wide in some areas. Pohoiki (Isaac Hale) Beach Park now has several paved parking lots, and tents all over the place on weekends. The gated community Kapoho Beach Lots, a neighborhood of people mostly not from Hawaii, has tightened gate security so much that it is almost impossible for people to access one of the few child-friendly swimming spots in Puna. The culture is still the same, though—relaxed locals who wave at each car they pass whether they know them or not, and people respectfully drive very slowly in residential areas. The aloha is definitely still there, but the scenery is changing.