West Maui tourism decision should be individual choice
from Grassroot Institute, Oct 11, 2023
The best way to deal with the clashing preferences about reopening West Maui to tourism is to leave it to each resident’s own timeline, not government officials, according to Grassroot Institute of Hawaii Executive Vice President Joe Kent.
Speaking last week with host Rick Hamada on KHVH NewsRadio 830, Kent said the problem is complex, especially in Lahaina, where the community is still grappling with the “reopening and rebuilding effort at the same time that there’s a grieving effort.”
Wildfires in the area on Aug. 8 killed nearly 100 people and destroyed thousands of buildings. Gov. Josh Green initially slated Oct. 8 as the date for reopening West Maui to visitors. But as Kent pointed out, not everyone is on board with this timeline, including Maui Mayor Richard Bissen, who established a phased reopening approach.
In addition, there have been protests against tourism and petitions signed by thousands of people to delay the reopening.
On the other hand, Kent said, tourism is crucial to helping Lahaina and Maui residents recover economically.
The solution, he said, is respecting each individual’s personal timeline.
“It really should be a question of when are you ready and how can we allow that autonomy,” he said. “If you want to participate in tourism and try to service tourists, you can. If you don’t want to, if it’s too soon for you, then you don’t have to,” he said. “We need to think about the principle of individual liberty here and self-ownership.”
10-5-23 Joe Kent with Rick Hamada on News Radio KHVH 830 AM
Rick Hamada: Want to thank you for joining us on this Thursday. This time reserved for Joe Kent, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. And Joe, always good to see you. Good morning.
Oh, let me make sure we have the right — let’s try this.
Joe Kent: 1, 2, 3, can you hear me?
Hamada: How’s that? I was just telling Joe we’re trying to do some improvements. Except, for the host, it’d probably be nice if I had it together.
Joe, would you mind sharing about Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, please?
Kent: Sure. Well, the Grassroot Institute is a nonprofit think tank, and we’re independent, so that allows us to say what we think about anyone. And we focus on the government matters normally, so we’re kind of a government watchdog.
Hamada: And how can we connect with you?
Kent: So, we are at grassrootinstitute.org or you can go to @grassroothawaii on Instagram.
Hamada: Alright, appreciate that very much.
When two months ago, with the tragedy on Maui, you recounted of your own role in the Valley Isle, specifically Lahaina. We are two months later. Joe, what’s top of mind with you on this story?
Kent: Well, it just seems to be getting more and more complex. The problem is there’s a reopening and rebuilding effort at the same time that there’s a grieving effort. And those two things are colliding both when it comes to tourism and when it comes to housing, and maybe other things too. There’s a blame game going on too, so it just gets more and more complex.
We’ve seen this week a big protest about reopening tourism on Maui. And I think there were 14,000 signatures or more saying that it’s too soon to open tourism.
I mean, and at the same time, you have voices on Maui who are saying, “We need to reopen tourism because that’s my job,” you know? And so, it’s really interesting to see this interplay right now.
Hamada: So, I just — a couple of questions, sidebar. I know that Mayor [Richard] Bissen had an announcement earlier this week in regard to some aid for displaced families — and I understand that.
Hamada: But as far as, “Where is Mayor Bissen?”, it just seems that there’s a dearth of connectivity, face time, accessibility. I would take that to the governor’s office to a degree, but specifically, Maui-centric.
Kent: Yeah. After any tragedy, after any emergency, it’s very — the politicians, right now, are on the chopping block, you might say. And so, I think he may be feeling sensitive. Of course, any — even politicians, Maui Council members, just look at any politician in charge and wonder if they’re going to be here.
And so, I think Mayor Bissen, at least, I don’t know if he’s consciously doing it, but it’s certainly perceived to be in the background. I mean, if you think about who is in the foreground, it’s Gov. [Josh] Green, actually, who survived a different emergency — the COVID-19 emergency. And actually, he rose in prominence during that, which was a very different path than politicians normally take.
And so, you know, there are still questions about Bissen’s role during the emergency. Where was he? I think he gave an answer that he was there trying to help with the emergency and the management agency there. But it was kind of a vague answer that I think was unsatisfactory.
And also, he, I believe, was responsible for the appointment of Herman Andaya, who was the management director there — former management director of the Emergency Management Agency on Maui — that famously did not sound the sirens. And so, I think there are legitimate questions about, you know, Bissen’s role.
But right now, at least he — to take the positive tack — he may just be trying to direct resources to where they’re needed and just is, you know, a little bit out of the picture when it comes to the public eye.
So, but he did, though, alter Gov. Green’s reopening date of Oct. 8. Gov. Green said that we’re going to reopen tourism, and Bissen said, “Hold on, let’s reopen it in a phased way.”
So now there are three phases. The first phase starts again on Oct. 8, and that includes Kapalua to Kahana. That’s really far north of Lahaina. I mean, it’s — I used to live in Kahana there. It’s very far away from Lahaina.
But then the second and third reopenings kind of concerned the Ka‘anapali hotel area. And in any case, I’m almost wondering why they even have to talk about this because you can go to West Maui right now.
There are some tourists in West Maui. And it’s not even that you’re mandated to open. Some, actually, at most hotels that would be allowed to open on Oct. 8 that I’m looking at, aren’t even open on Oct. 8. You know, they’re opening in December.
And so, I think we need to think about the principle of individual liberty here and self-ownership. You know, you have autonomy over your own life. If you want to participate in tourism and try to service tourists, you can. If you don’t want to, if it’s too soon for you, then you don’t have to.
But I think the problem with the tourism question and the housing question is that we’re trying to say when everyone else should be ready. But it really should be a question of when are you ready and how can we allow that autonomy.
Hamada: Let’s be honest. The divisiveness is also fueled by a cogent and active anti-tourism sentiment. And I’m not saying, or accusing. I’m just saying that is an obvious we’ve known about for ages.
Hamada: When I was in the tourism business, in the cruise business, I sensed it, knew it, saw it — all of that, granted.
I’m just cautionary that the messaging that we’re hearing is commingled, or even led by those with that sentiment over the support and advocacy of those who are displaced.
And the volume of this, it’s no bueno, no good. Because it’s going to affect us here at home, and it’s going to affect what you must have: commerce, economy, tourism.
Kent: Yeah. I mean, if you look at the recovery effort, Maui County doesn’t have money right now, you know? They’re trying to rebuild with $40 million in their housing fund; we’re talking about billions of dollars that they need. Where does that $40 million come from even? It comes from tourists. And so, actually, tourists are a big help in the rebuilding effort and keeping people employed.
I mean, we don’t want two disasters to happen, which is the second being the unemployment of the county.
And so, absolutely, I think even — but to be positive again — even people who like tourists and service tourists and give a lot of aloha, all of their life to tourists, some of those people are still grieving and should make their own time of when they want to participate again. So, everyone has their own timeline here.
Hamada: Talking with Joe Kent, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. How can folks reach out to you, Joe?
Kent: Grassrootinstitute.org or go to our Instagram. We’ve tried to break it down in 15 seconds in a lot of funny videos there.
Hamada: What I’d like to do is, again, with housing. Top of mind obviously, Valley Isle, but also statewide. Have a caller that talked with the mayor and said, “Why is it that we — Can we stop non — Well, mainland …”
Kent: Outside buyers?
Hamada: Exactly. And so, what I’d like to know is, do you know, what the percentage of home sales and or current home ownership is non-Hawaii-centric?
Kent: So, it’s about 20%. So, 20% of homes that are purchased every year in Hawaii statewide are purchased by out-of-staters. About 2% of that is foreign buyers, meaning people outside the U.S.
And so, now, it depends on which island, too. On Oahu, about 16% is sold to outside buyers, and on Maui, that’s about 35%. So, it all averages out to about 20%.
But if you compare that to the rest of the nation, New Hampshire and Vermont have even higher shares of outside buyers, but they have lower home prices. And then you look at states with much lower shares of outside buyers and they have much higher home prices. And so, I don’t know if there’s any consistency within the data.
But one problem with the outside buyer narrative is that, “We can’t build new homes. You know, if we build new homes, then outsiders will buy them,” right?” Yes, maybe some outsiders will buy 20% of them, but what about the 80% that are bought by local buyers?
Hamada: Yeah. And also, there are locals that have multiple properties.
Kent: That’s true, that’s true.
Hamada: That’s part of the scenario.
Talking with Joe Kent. Can we chat a bit about utility prices and where we’ve been, where we are, and now with HECO [Hawaiian Electric Co.], which in my humble opinion, did a disservice with their appearance before Congress in committee testimony, but that’s — where are we?
Kent: Well, I — where are we? I just looked at my electricity bill this last month, and it’s about three times what people on the mainland are paying. We pay three times higher rates here in Hawaii.
And I went and looked back at what that number was over time. And if you go back to the 1980s, it was one to one..
I mean, you can barely believe that now. But we were paying the same rates that they were paying on the mainland. That has gradually increased over time. And my question is, “How much more is it going to increase?” I mean, let’s look at the facts.
We have major lawsuits against Hawaiian Electric to the tune of maybe $3 billion. They are — HECO — is asking the Public Utilities Commission if they can raise their rates to pay for the lawsuits, perhaps, so that’s right into the rate.
You have major infrastructure rebuilding efforts — or of course, Lahaina — but also to try to prevent future fire disasters, perhaps by burying electric lines.
And then you have a renewable energy mandate issue. Which is, we’ve just closed last year the last coal-burning plant in the islands. That might be good for the air, but it’s bad for our pocketbooks because coal is much cheaper than oil right now, and typically is.
And so, how high are those electricity prices going to go? Four times higher? Five times higher?
So, it’s really difficult to dig into the numbers. You need an expert and the experts are busy right now. You know, the experts are HECO.
Hamada: 8:51 in the morning. Just briefly, the clean energy mandate — not that far away.
Kent: That’s right.
Hamada: What role is that having on prices?
Kent: So, we are supposed to reach 100% renewable energy by the year 2045. And we’re kind of ramping up as we go. That means we’re closing down, like I said, the cheaper sources of energy and trying to upgrade our system to allow for the renewable sources.
But the problem with renewables [is] they’re not very reliable. Just because they’re renewable doesn’t mean they’re reliable. And so, if the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, what are you going to do? You need, I don’t know — batteries, right?
Well, how many batteries? Well, batteries are really expensive. And it doesn’t matter how many batteries you have. Even if you like dotted the whole island with batteries, it wouldn’t even cover one rainy day on the islands.
And so, then when it comes to cheaper renewable sources that are more firm, like geothermal or nuclear, those may work out on paper, but they don’t work out in politics though. Those are highly politically charged alternatives.
And so, the problem is we’re restricting ourselves kind of like a straitjacket. And that’s going to put the residents in a straitjacket when it comes to paying for all this.
Hamada: You revealed it right there. I mean, in this, you know, core of this program: politics. Politics.
The utilization of remnants of nuclear power on vessels could be utilized. Could do it.
You mentioned, there’s wave energy. There are many alternatives. I don’t know why in the world that we don’t have hydrogen vehicles on the road. But we don’t, because there are battles to quell and squelch by any way — politics.
So, I consider that self-inflicted wounds. If we don’t have an electorate or a constituency that will recognize that, demand and have consequence, we [are] no longer in a representative democracy. We are a de facto dictatorship, or whatever benevolent sovereign, I don’t know, whatever term it is. We have to get that knowledge and understanding that if we decide, we have to act.
Kent: And I think even renewable advocates are recognizing these problems. I mean, ask any advocate of this renewable plan and they’ll say, “Actually, Joe’s right about these problems.”
You know, renewable energies typically do have problems with firm power. So, how are we going to solve this problem?
Or is this problem going to be solved by it becoming so expensive here that families continue the march towards the mainland?
Hamada: I’ve got — I forgot to do some business here, Joe. This is two minutes. It will be right back with Joe Kent after this.
We have a few moments remaining with Joe Kent. And I want to thank Joe and Grassroot Institute of Hawaii for being a part of the program.
Joe, we have literally just about two and a half minutes remaining. I’d like to turn it over to you for some final thoughts, topic, anything you’d like to share?
Kent: Yeah, sure. Well, in California, they just passed the “Yes in God’s backyard” bill.
Kent: Which is a funny phrase, but it just means a bill that allows churches to build housing if they want to.
And, you know, my dad is a minister on the Big Island. We lived in Honomu there. And I remember growing up, for years, the church there wanted to build affordable housing for seniors, but they couldn’t get the right zoning. You know, it was the wrong plot of land or the wrong regulation.
And they tried for years and years and, you know, even to this day, they still haven’t been able to build housing there. And I think there are a lot of churches across the state that would — not all churches, but some that have land that. and especially some churches that may be wondering, you know, what to do with their land and their asset and the will of the members — and they may want to provide affordable housing or a senior center or children’s daycare or something. And they should be allowed to do that by right without having to go through this big machine that private developers typically have to go through.
And so, I think it was a common sense reform in California. I’m glad it passed there. We tried to do it here. It didn’t work because it died at the Legislature. But who knows? Maybe this year will be, this coming year will be one.
Hamada: Well, if California did it, we’ll do it in about two to three years. I mean, we just …
Kent: [chuckles] Yeah, that’s how it goes.
Hamada: … kind of go that way.
Remind us how we can connect with Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.
Kent: You can get on our email list at grassrootinstitute.org.
Hamada: Joe Kent. Thank you so much for taking the time with us each week.
Kent: Thanks Rick.
Related: Let Maui tourism recover at its own pace