PAHALA >> When thinking about the future of this town, residents say, it’s important to first consider its past. In particular, to consider the year everything changed.
In 1996, Hawaii island’s last sugar plantation closed here, ending a way of life for a town that revolved almost exclusively around the industry.
Many families had to move elsewhere for work. Those who stayed behind struggled.
|ON THE BIG ISLAND
78% Of state’s orchard land
81% Of state’s papaya acreage
66% Of state’s lemon acreage
65% Of state’s lime acreage
69% Of state’s avocado acreage
54% Of state’s banana orchards
Source: State Department of Agriculture
"Everyone went their own ways," said Thomas "Bull" Kailiawa, 49, who worked at the sugar mill for 12 years before it shuttered.
People here still recall the day sugar died with tears in their eyes — and say Pahala is still trying to find its footing, 17 years later.
Pahala is one of a handful of communities on the island that saw a population decline from 2000 to 2010, according to U.S. Census estimates. Today about 1,360 people call it home.
Most places on the island, in contrast, saw staggering population growth over the period.
But Pahala residents bristle at the suggestion that their town is dying, and they’re determined to remake it on their own terms.
"Look at what we have here," Lynn Hamilton said as she sat with friends on a recent weekend, pictures of old Pahala strewn across her dining-room table. "We have a real village. We have a town that is unique, and we have a people who are still here. This town, these people, are valuable."
There are some positive signs for the town. Kau coffee, now recognized as among the best in the world, has brought much-needed attention and economic opportunity to Pahala.
Kailiawa now grows coffee on 7.5 acres of leased land above Pahala, dries it in his yard and sells it as a boutique roast.
"Everybody right now, they’re growing coffee," Kailiawa said as he raked coffee beans back and forth along long drying racks.
The town is also home to several large — and growing — macadamia nut and other farms. And there is talk of putting a biofuel refinery above Pahala (an idea not uniformly welcomed by residents).
Julia Neal, publisher and editor of the Ka’u Calendar, lives in Pahala and said reinventing the town won’t mean putting in glitzy tourist hot spots or tearing down the plantation-era structures that are such an integral part of Pahala’s history.
Residents, she said, aren’t interested in changing the character of the place — or of seeing property prices skyrocket.
"People are trying to come back," she said, "because guess where the fireman can afford a house?"
PAHALA RESIDENTS, she said, want to honor their heritage and ensure their children and grandchildren have a home.
That drive to preserve the past is evident in the work of a group of Pahala women who hope to turn the oldest plantation home still standing in Pahala into a "living museum" and visitors center.
They’ve got quite a job ahead of them.
The home is vacant, and while its foundation appears structurally sound, just about everything else needs to be replaced or refurbished. There are gaping holes in the wood flooring, missing windows, termite-eaten beams.
The women, who include Hamilton, don’t seem overly daunted, though.
They say Pahala will come through for them, giving them whatever the little house needs to live another life.
Gail Kalani, who was born and raised in Pahala, said renovating the town’s oldest plantation house is a small way to send a big message: "We’re trying to save what we have, our area, our housing," she said. "We want to remember what it was like."
But as Pahala seeks a renaissance of sorts, trying to find itself in a post-sugar era, it is doing so with incredible challenges.
Many in the community are aging. Residents still struggle to find work. And young people are leaving for opportunities elsewhere.
Otis Salmo is a rare breed of Pahala resident: He’s young and he returned.
Salmo, whose father worked at the sugar plantation, grew up in Pahala and graduated from Kau High in 2001. He joined the Navy, traveled and got bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Last year he decided to come back to his hometown, something he always knew he wanted to do.
He accepted a position as a counselor at Kau High and Pahala Elementary School, and is also a youth volleyball coach.
"Right now I think I’m the only one that returned among my classmates. All the other ones that left, I don’t see them anymore," he said.
Even Salmo’s siblings didn’t return. Salmo’s brother lives in Wyoming, his sister in Hilo.
"Jobs here are very scarce and it’s a different life," Salmo said. "Not everybody likes this lifestyle. There’s more things out there. Here there’s nothing."