Hawaii On the Hill

It makes sense for the leaders of local small businesses and county governments to fly 4,800 miles every year to visit a hill. That’s because when you are on Capitol Hill, there are opportunities all around you.

“As of today,” says Kauai mayor Bernard Carvalho, his voice reaching a crescendo, “I can announce that the U.S. Highways Administration has authorized the County of Kauai to go out to bid for a $15.8 million Lihue Town Core Mobility and Revitalization Project.”This project, which is designed to help make historic Lihue a walkable/bikeable city, is the result of a $13.8 million infusion of cash from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program – better known as a TIGER grant. Kauai was actually notified it had received the TIGER grant in 2015, but the project just received full approval from the Highway Administration this June.

“Now, we’re rocking and rolling,” Carvalho exults. “Boom, boom, boom. We expect to solicit proposals for design/build work in the upcoming months. I’m talking action, now. And that’s action with aloha.”

Getting the TIGER grant – the largest in the state – was truly a team effort, Carvalho says. It took having the right people at the local level, in the Planning Department and the Department of Public Works. It took collaborative partners at the state and federal levels. And it required ongoing support from Hawaii’s congressional delegation, particularly at the end, when complications arose because of the change in administrations in Washington.

But Carvalho says part of the credit also goes to a 4-year-old program called “Hawaii on the Hill.” Sponsored by Sen. Mazie Hirono and the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, “Hawaii on the Hill” is an attempt to make other members of Congress more aware of Hawaii companies and products. This year, the program included events like a welcoming reception, a breakfast “talk story” with Hirono, and a series of policy talks at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and in the venerable Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building.



The program culminates with an event called “Taste of Hawaii,” where members of Congress and their staffs sample Hawaii food, listen to Hawaiian music and learn about Hawaii culture. “Taste of Hawaii” is wildly popular on the Hill. Nearly 2,000 people lined up to attend this year, including some of the most powerful people in Washington. It turns out that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer really loves Spam musubi. (He’s also a big fan of Hirono. In a casual presentation for some of the Hawaii contingent, he admired how she worked the budget-writing process to get funding for some of the state’s smaller airports, “many of which,” he pointed out, “are in places that begin with a ‘K.’ “)

For her part, Hirono acknowledges that most states have long had their own version of Hawaii on the Hill. “I think it’s a fantastic way of showcasing small businesses in a state,” she says. “But, prior to 2014, we had never done it for Hawaii. I think that’s because it’s so daunting to bring our people and products all the way to DC. But, at some point, we were sitting around and, basically, my chief of staff said, ‘Why don’t we just try this?’ ”

For it to work, though, they knew they needed partners. The obvious choice, Hirono says, was the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii. “We knew there was new leadership at the chamber, with Sherrie Menor-McNamara. So, that’s how it started. And it’s a terrific partnership.” Now, the Chamber marshals the troops in Hawaii, and Hirono’s office coordinates most of the Washington side of things. There was also considerable Neighbor Island support. Mayor Carvalho and state Sen. Ron Kouchi served as co-chairs of that first “Hawaii on the Hill.”

Even so, the program required risk-taking on everybody’s part, Hirono says.

“Just think of the logistics of bringing all these people here – and we have a record number of participants this year, almost 70 companies and organizations and about a hundred people from Hawaii are coming. Now that we’re in our fourth year, participants also have the opportunity to meet with administrative decision-makers. It’s a way for us to have a presence in Washington, DC. I think that’s really important for businesses in Hawaii. We’re very far away from Washington, and half the battle, in my view, is showing up. Our continuing to show up, and meeting with these agencies, makes a difference.”


One of the most tenacious participants in Hawaii on the Hill, Hirono says, is Jimmy Chan, owner of the Hawaiian Chip Co. “Jimmy really started off humbly. I used to go to all these craft fairs and buy stuff from the local people, and I remember running into him there. He and his wife were literally making these chips and bagging them in his little condo or apartment. He’s really good at concocting sauces. Now, they’re exporting them to Japan.”

Hirono points out that, although Hawaiian Chip Co. is one of the smaller companies at Hawaii on the Hill, Chan has been coming since the beginning.

Chan says his participation is partly a matter of loyalty. “Over the years, Sen. Hirono has been a big supporter of small business, and of our business in particular, so we’re definitely there to support her. The Hawaiian Chip Co. is also actively involved with both the Chamber of Commerce and the Hawaii Food Manufacturers Association, which work dynamically together on the program, so I’m there to support them, too.”

But Chan also sees Hawaii on the Hill as an opportunity. Like many small business owners, he believes in the old adage: “A rising tide raises all boats.”

“Part of the value that I see in our participation in Hawaii on the Hill,” he says, “is what it does to strengthen the brand of Hawaii. I think it’s easy for Hawaii to kind of get left off the map, because of our geographic isolation and all the other things that present challenges for our businesses. So, by making a cohesive presentation like this, it really gives us an opportunity to properly brand Hawaii, and set us apart from whatever ticky-tacky images people might have about Hawaii. It really gives people a chance to know our businesses, to know our culture.”

This year, he notes, that endeavor faced a unique challenge after a man shot Rep. Steve Scalise and several Capitol Police officers at a local baseball park where Republican members of Congress were practicing for an annual baseball game with their Democratic colleagues.

“That really brought a somber tone to the day,” Chan says. “Thank goodness he’s OK. And it was refreshing to see the turnout at the event – in spite of the shooting – seeing the people at Taste of Hawaii embrace the spirit, get that flower lei, try stuff like kimchee, kalua pig, fried saimin, maitais, and Hawaii coffee – to really see the Hawaii brand resonate with these people.”



This marketing opportunity is the most obvious benefit of Hawaii on the Hill for businesses, but Chan says there are other, subtler reasons to participate.

Paradoxically, one is meeting other Hawaii business leaders.

“For example,” he says, “we’ve actually gotten a chance to work with King’s Hawaiian Bakery. I got to connect with some of their management, sharing our stories. They’re now a national brand, in places like California and Georgia. They’re huge. But they started from a bakery in Hilo that I grew up with. I remember going to that bakery and going to the King’s Hawaiian Bakery in Honolulu. And they were sharing stories about the risks they took to grow their business. And I shared stories about the risks I’m taking now to grow mine. That’s an opportunity that wouldn’t have been available to me if it weren’t for this event.”

Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, attending for the third time, agrees with Chan. “It’s an opportunity to meet the vendors who participate – and these are usually up-and-coming vendors that are just beginning to shine. Because Hawaii is a collection of islands, on Maui, we don’t get to know many of these Oahu vendors, or Kauai vendors, or Hawaii Island vendors until we get to Washington. For us to be able to meet a lot of these vendors while working at Hawaii on the Hill is very helpful.”

Even so, Arakawa points out that the formal events at Hawaii on the Hill aren’t really the main reason he attends.

“It’s not necessarily the best use of my time,” he says.

A much more strategic approach to Hawaii on the Hill is to use the time to meet with powerful people in Washington who can impact opportunity and growth in Maui. Prior to this year’s Hawaii on the Hill, Arakawa says he had eight or nine of these meetings set up.

“Whenever we go to Washington, we always have things we need to talk about with our congressional delegation, or with department directors or deputy directors. Many of my own department heads will want me to break ground with people we have to deal with in Washington. We talk about funding. We talk about the directions we’re heading, why we’re doing it and how we’re trying to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes, we’re just airing out complaints, saying, ‘What your department is asking us to do is impossible to do.’

“On this trip, I met with somebody from EPA. I met with somebody from DOT. I met with somebody working with all the alternative energy programs. My time is better spent having these meetings, talking to people and doing the face-to-face. Now, when I call them, they’ll be able to relate to who I am. It’s making those personal contacts that’s most important to me.”


The key, of course, is setting up these meetings ahead of time. The mayor’s staff can schedule many of them. For others, it’s easier if a member of the congressional delegation sets them up. Sometimes, one of the senators’ staffers will even walk them to the meeting to make introductions. The point is to get in front of the right people.

Setting up meetings for constituents is a key role for a senator’s office. “That’s part of what I do here,” Hirono says. “I facilitate those kinds of opportunities. We helped set up meetings for the various businesses that are here this year. If they need to meet with members of the Senate, I help arrange it. For example, the folks that are here from the captive insurance industry (wholly owned companies that exist to insure their owners) really wanted to get to meet with Sen. Orin Hatch or his staff over some legislation. So, I just called up Orin and said, ‘Orin, I have a group here from Hawaii. Could you meet with them?’ So, the captive insurance people got in there and had their meeting.”

Many of the other companies and organizations attending Hawaii on the Hill also took advantage of their time in Washington to meet with key partners. Capt. Vincent Johnson, commanding officer of Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, comes to the event every year, largely because Barking Sands is one of the largest employers in the county. But he makes it a point to visit with Pentagon brass and make the rounds in Congress, too.
Eric Schiff, VP of Navatek, a Honolulu ship designer and marine technology company that does research for the Navy, has much the same approach for his Hawaii on the Hill.

“I’ll take advantage of the time in D.C. to tie in other opportunities,” he says. “For example, I coordinated a meeting with the Office of Navy Research for while I was there.”

But probably no one has made more use of the Hawaii on the Hill opportunity than mayor Carvalho of Kauai. That’s partly because of the support of Hirono and her staff. As she points out, “The mayor of Kauai got the biggest TIGER grant of any entity in Hawaii, and we helped set up some meetings for him. But, even though getting the foot in the door is important, they put their best foot forward.”

Most of Carvalho’s success in Washington is a function of persistence and determination. “In 2014,” Carvalho says, “we used the meetings we set up during Hawaii on the Hill as the opportunity to build relationships, to show credibility, and to explain our vision and the baby steps we were taking in our community to build toward the bigger picture. What I’m saying is that it takes time. It’s irritating, but you’ve got to hang in there. We’re competing against the guys in places like New York, New Mexico, South Dakota and all over the United States. We were successful in the County of Kauai. Why? Because we took it one step at a time and encouraged our partners every step of the way. It wasn’t until 2015 that we applied for grants. We won the award in October of 2015; but, for every dollar that we were awarded, 20 were applied for.”

This kind of opportunity isn’t limited to Hawaii on the Hill, of course. As Carvalho points out, opportunity is everywhere, if you’re prepared to work for it. Another place to find opportunity – one that both Carvalho and Arakawa laud – is the National Conference of Mayors, which meets every January in Washington. The idea is to take advantage of where you are to meet the right people, share information and build relations for down the road.

And Carvalho hasn’t stopped, just because Kauai got its TIGER grant. Last year, he used Hawaii on the Hill to meet with leadership at the Department of Education and USDA. This year, it was the U.S. Postal Service (to talk about keeping the post office in Lihue open) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (to discuss federal grant opportunities for an adolescent drug treatment center).

“I would say that Hawaii on the Hill kind of ignites a spark, if you will,” Carvalho says. “It’s not just one function. It’s the ripple effect from all these functions that gives you opportunities all over. You’ve just got to be ready, willing and able to take your story and go with it. You have to be passionate about your vision. That way, people will say, ‘Oh, that sounds like something we can support.’ ”

And $13.8 million later, it seems like a good plan.

Categories: Government, Success Stories