Optimism Despite Tough Times on Molokai
Residents want businesses and jobs but also want to preserve their traditional way of life. What happens to Molokai may teach Hawaii about the costs and benefits of restraining development and creating a sustainable future.
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Former Molokai Ranch employees
Cathy Kawamae ran a nursery for Molokai Ranch and grew plants for the company’s Kaluakoi Golf Course while her husband, Ivan, worked at the nursery part-time.
When the ranch announced it would shut down April 5, the Kawamaes knew they would be out of work. Fortunately (and by the grace of God, as Cathy says), the owners of Oasis at Mahana Nursery asked them to manage their 14-acre nursery. The Kawamaes were among the lucky few of the 98 laid-off employees of Molokai Ranch to find new jobs right away.
But the Oasis nursery is no sure thing. It was neglected for years and was overrun by weeds and overgrowth. It isn’t yet profitable but it does fill a niche. It will target Molokai landscapers “because they’ve been bringing plants from off-island,” Cathy says. “We can provide those plants for them. It helps us as well as them.”
The island’s residents have consistently resisted the development plans of Molokai Ranch and other companies, and they have paid the price with Hawaii’s highest rate of unemployment. The community is small and wants to stay that way, but that creates challenges for every business there. How do companies adjust to a 25 percent price increase for less-than-container-load shipments when everything comes in that way? There’s no place on Molokai to register for a Transportation Workers Identification Card, so how can businesses send employees to pick up goods at the pier? Private loans for entrepreneurs are almost impossible to get.
But in some ways, Molokai may be closer to a goal shared by many people in Hawaii: to be an island self-sufficient in producing food and energy for its people, coupled with a diversified economy, while maintaining its traditional culture. Lots of undeveloped land and a population of only 8,000 that still gets much of its food from hunting and fishing make that goal seem more plausible for Molokai than for Oahu and Maui. What actually happens to Molokai may teach the rest of us lessons in the benefits and costs of maintaining a traditional lifestyle and in creating a self-sufficient, sustainable community.
But right now, the rest of the state is subsidizing Molokai, with its high rates of unemployment benefits and other forms of assistance. The unemployment rate nationally and statewide increased in 2008, but the Friendly Isle was hit especially hard. Before Molokai Ranch closed, the jobless rate was 5.1 percent. Afterward, it jumped to 12.2 percent. Nonetheless, many residents remain upbeat.
“Unfortunately, people think we’re devastated,” says Barbara Haliniak, owner of The Business Depot, a small bookkeeping business, and president of the Molokai Chamber of Commerce. “But you know what, I don’t see anybody wen’ turning in their big cars for one small car. I don’t see anybody cutting back. We still having parties every week. We just make do.” She points out that there aren’t any homeless or illegal campers on the beach.
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