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Beyond Oahu

Dramatic changes confront the state as people increasingly favor living on the neighbor islands

By Star-Advertiser staff

LAST UPDATED: 4:23 p.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014

The state will see the lion’s share of its population growth on the neighbor islands. While Oahu’s population far exceeds Hawaii, Maui or Kauai — even combined — the growth rate here lags far behind. Today, the Star-Advertiser debuts the first of three in-depth special reports planned for this year on the emergence of our neighbors in the island chain, beginning with Hawaii island.

By 2030, more than a third of Hawaii residents will be neighbor islanders, a reality that observers predict will almost certainly have repercussions big and small for everything from the state’s economy to its politics.

The migration of people to the neighbor islands has been increasing at a rapid clip for the past two decades, spurring questions about infrastructure, overdevelopment and preserving a sense of place.

Those discussions will get louder, politicians and community leaders say, as more people see the neighbor islands as a place to raise a family, take advantage of growing opportunities — especially in emerging sectors — and escape some of Oahu’s urban headaches.

“Oahu is like the big brother,” said Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who is from Maui. With population growth, “the neighbor islands are trying to look at what works and what didn’t work. It will continue to be the growth area, we just need to do it right.”

A recently released state report on county trends notes that 70 percent of the state’s population in 2011 was on Oahu, down from 75 percent in 1990.

Within 30 years, the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism has predicted, about 60 percent of Hawaii’s population will be on Oahu.

The rest will be scattered across the neighbor islands, with the largest segment on Hawaii island.

The population shifts are expected to heighten perennial concerns about whether the neighbor islands get their fair share of resources — and attention. And while Honolulu will undoubtedly continue to be the state’s seat of power and government, many believe the neighbor islands will take on more prominent roles as places to do business and attract visitors.

“All of our conversations (today) are Honolulu-centric,” said Dick Pratt, University of Hawaii public administration professor and author of “Hawai‘i Politics and Government.”

“Let’s imagine the population is more evenly distributed. That would have to change. Every conversation would have to change. It wouldn’t be them (neighbor islanders) having to come here to get attention,” Pratt said.

Tsutsui said along with the growth have come growing pains — and those are expected to continue, too. Many communities, he said, are trying to grapple with the prospect of new development, overtaxed infrastructure and what they want — and don’t want — in their communities.

“Obviously whenever you have growth, you have folks who see growth as being a good thing. You have others who want to leave the country country,” he said.

From 1990 to 2011, Hawaii island and Maui saw their populations swell by 54 percent. Kauai County’s population grew by 31 percent. Oahu saw the slowest growth during the period, at 15 percent.

Eugene Tian, administrator for DBEDT’s Research and Economic Analysis Division, said population growth rates on the neighbor islands will continue to outpace Oahu’s for the foreseeable future.

Of course, Oahu has a larger population base, so the percentage growth is relative.

But he said the trend is especially important because it will mean expansion in three vital economic sectors — finance, construction and tourism.

“The visitor industry will see faster growth on the neighbor islands. There are also more housing needs,” he said. “They will all be growing faster on the neighbor islands.”

Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi said he sees significant opportunities for the neighbor islands amid growth.

On Hawaii island alone,he said, “We have two deep harbors, two airports, the land to feed ourselves.

“When we talk about food security, we’re talking about Hawaii island. When we talk about energy sustainability, we’re talking about Hawaii island.”

But he noted growth is not always easy — “we’re not working off a clean shirt” — and concerns about poor infrastructure, overdevelopment and congestion are real (and also growing).

Meanwhile, population growth is already having an impact on county politics, adding seats on local councils and giving growing communities greater voice.

Colin Moore, a UH assistant professor of political science who specializes in U.S. politics, said it will be interesting to see whether the growth affects Hawaii’s party politics as well.

He said many of those moving to the neighbor islands are retirees or mainlanders, who might be more right-leaning.

“That might end up creating a more conservative character on the neighbor islands,” Moore said.

But political analyst Neal Milner said while Republicans might end up picking up one or two seats in the state Legislature in coming years, he doesn’t see population growth changing the fact that Hawaii leans overwhelmingly Democratic.

Milner said county elections, however, might see significant changes because of population growth: Familiar names might lose their seats, and elections could become more competitive.

Population growth could also bring new prominence, he said, to long-held concerns that the neighbor islands aren’t getting their fair share of resources.

Tsutsui said there is already a strong perception that the neighbor islands “get left out.”

He contends that perception doesn’t jibe with facts. “The reality is the neighbor islands do get more than their fair share,” he said.

But, he added, “Sometimes it is the case that they’re an afterthought.”

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