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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 and Ivan Kawamae
are looking forward to running a 14-acre industry.

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.

Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

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Mar 12, 2009 08:02 am
 Posted by  Thomas Anderson

The author of this article is too kind and not at all realistic: In my view from 37yrs of experience being a resident and then having to move away b/c of no jobs, the prevailing attitude of the people on Molokai is one of hostile isolationism overtly laced with racist attitudes. "Don't let the (expletive) haoles come in and steal our `aina!" describes typical attitudes of those wishing to keep the island pristine from the outside world at the cost of stunting its economic development and future. As a result, residents have to poach and steal resources from the very land (still owned by Molokai Ranch, btw) they protest to protect. They justify this blatant trepass with excuses like, "We're Hawaiian and it's our anscestor's land," or "Nobody going care, da ranch stay out of business anyways." With no incentive for industries to enter and combative attitudes all around, troublemakers/"activists" like Walter Rittee might very well get to be just like the characters on "Lost": An island all to themselves and no where to go. Which is precisely what they really wanted all along.

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Apr 6, 2009 08:01 pm
 Posted by  captainmolokai

The battle between the small group of activists and the Molokai Ranch (MPL) is ugly on both sides and is hard to ignore. There are ugly signs on fence posts everywhere spreading hatred in every direction. The Molokai Dispatch is nothing more than a political arm of the activists filling the pages with hatred and discord. No one is trying to solve the problems or come up with a realistic plan for the island. My experience talking to other Hawaiians - from other islands - is that think the people of Molokai are a crazy group - lazy and living off the funds supplied by the rest of the state. They ride around at night shooting from their pickup trucks at the axis deer that are thriving on the island. They throw their trash on every pristine beach, too lazy to pick up their own waste. The homelands are a piece of appalachia in the middle of the Pacific. A rich Hawaiian is ohne with two cars on blocks.

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Feb 2, 2010 05:20 pm
 Posted by  rudedog

Forty seven years ago I married a girl whose family lives on Molokai. Those years allowed me to experience this unique place and appreciate the mindset of its equally unique people. I never had the feeling anyone felt disadvantaged or thought they lived substandard lives. All the individuals I met were kind, unselfish and eager to share the bounty of living in such a beautiful place. They genuinely love and embrace the island and the simple lifestyle. They will somehow make things work out.

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