PAHOA >> When a drugstore chain and two fast-food eateries set up shop at the entrance of this old plantation town in 2011, "Keep Pahoa Pahoa" grew from a bumper sticker slogan used by a handful of town leaders to the mantra for a communitywide campaign.
Residents worried the businesses were the first of more to come, a glimpse of what immense population growth in the Puna district would mean for the historic town, with its eclectic main street of Western-style storefronts painted in deep greens and brick reds.
The new shopping area, with a Longs Drugs, a KFC (which has since closed its doors) and a Burger King, was criticized as being in-your-face, jarring and very much not Pahoa, said Rob Tucker, one of the founding members of the Friends of Puna’s Future.
"People were upset," he said. "It was that arrival of corporate logos and neon."
The struggle to "Keep Pahoa Pahoa" is emblematic of battles going on across Hawaii island, where the needs of growing communities — calling for increased services and conveniences — are coming up against mounting concerns over how to preserve the unique character and rural feel of historic places.
OVER THE LAST DECADE, Hawaii County’s population swelled by nearly 25 percent, the highest growth rate in the state.
The new neighbors have brought the promise of new industry and development, something that many residents say they welcome, as long as it’s not at the expense of what they have: a sense of place, of community and of the past.
Dan Taylor, a resident of Volcano who has been involved in Puna community planning, said the greatest fear for many is that historic corridors will be demolished to make way for strip malls and big-box stores.
"Look at Kihei, Waikiki or anywhere in Ewa," he said. "People are concerned that they wouldn’t be the ones guiding growth. They want to be the drivers."
Among towns destined to be commercial hubs for new growth areas, Pahoa stands apart because of the urgency of the need for services.
Pahoa’s Puna district has had the biggest growth rates on an island where just about every community is seeing new faces. From 1990 to 2010 Puna’s population more than doubled to 45,000.
But most of Puna’s population growth is happening in massive, largely unimproved subdivisions that have no grocery stores, waterlines or home mail delivery. Many still have unpaved roads.
So Pahoa has been identified as a key "proposed regional town center" for Puna, where many services will probably be placed, in part because it has existing (if aging) infrastructure.
More than any other community on Hawaii island, county planners say, Pahoa is under immense pressure to plan for the future quickly — and to get it right.
That’s perhaps especially true given Puna’s potential for future growth — the district has nearly 45 percent of the island’s subdivided lots. Of the 52,500 lots in Puna, about one-quarter are occupied.
"What are we going to do when people build on all of those lots?" said Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd, county planning director. "Where are the parks going to be? Where are the transit corridors?"
THE INITIATIVE to "save Pahoa" — seen as the likely regional town center for a considerable chunk of the Puna district — is by far the strongest and most organized of a number of community-planning efforts scattered around Hawaii island.
Those involved in drafting community plans say they have an incredible — and rare — opportunity to think strategically about how commercial development can be incorporated into the character of their towns.
And they’re determined to make their voices heard.
"People don’t object to having retail establishments, but they’re coming in sort of strip-mall format. You see it all over the country, and that’s not what they want," said Larry Brown, a Hawaii County planner who is helping residents draft a development plan for Pahoa. "They want to retain that rural village character."
But residents are also working against the clock. If they don’t act, they may have to simply accept whatever development comes their way.
In Pahoa there is a wide-scale acceptance that change will come — even as there’s growing trepidation about what that change will look like.
It’s that concern that’s driving more people to get involved. In recent months, public meetings about the future of Pahoa have been crowded affairs, and people are clamoring to lend a hand.
THOSE WHO LIVE, work or shop in Pahoa, where storefronts with boardwalks hug the two-lane road through town and where people greet store owners by name, are already in discussions with commercial landlords, have come up with a proposed "design district" plan and are meeting to map out their preferred future of the town.
Pahoa’s first major test case could come soon, with the construction of a planned $20 million shopping center in the heart of town that is set to feature a supermarket, a medical clinic, eateries and other retail properties.
Community leaders say they are in talks with the shopping center’s developer, who is apparently receptive to design suggestions.
Those fighting to "Keep Pahoa Pahoa" say they’re not against growth — or new business.
"We are trying to preserve a town, keep the architectural charm," said Mark Hinshaw, chairman of the Pahoa Regional Town Center steering committee and president of Mainstreet Pahoa. "At the same time, we’re dealing with exponential growth and (the need for) health services, education, sewer, water, the whole gamut."
ON A RECENT weekday afternoon in Pahoa, tourists strolled through shops or stopped by eateries. Residents were also out and about, eating lunch with family or friends, dropping off supplies or picking them up.
At the far end of the main street sits Jan’s Barber and Beauty Shop, housed in a tidy, small building painted a pale pink. It’s the oldest business in Pahoa these days.
Inside, proprietor — and store namesake — Janet Ikeda, 77, ate a lunch of saimin and listened to the radio. She has been cutting hair for 63 years, first as an apprentice to her grandfather, whose shop used to sit right in front of hers.
Ikeda was born and raised in Pahoa, and said she can’t imagine living and working anyplace else.
"Pahoa is a special place," she said.
Her reaction to talk of growth and new businesses: "The more, the better."
Up the street, several leaders of the effort to preserve Pahoa’s early buildings and unique character gathered at Luquin’s, a Mexican cantina and restaurant.
Over quesadillas, taco salads and tea, with rock music in the background, they made their case. They want a Pahoa that will accommodate all the needs of a growing population center but still retain the things that make it special: small, irregularly-shaped storefronts with false facades; no road setbacks; old-time canopies over boardwalks in front of businesses.
The new shopping area at the edge of town doesn’t meet those design guidelines.
Hinshaw, chairman of the town center steering committee, said there’s no tearing that development down. The hope, though, is that the community will have a say in the look of the next shopping area — and the one after that.
"This clearly is about preserving the town," not stopping growth, he said. "The growth is inevitable. We have thousands of subdivision lots that are already approved. Growth’s coming."
Pahoa itself is a tiny town, population roughly 950. For tourists it’s a popular stop on the way to Kalapana.
Madie Greene, affectionately know as the unofficial "mayor of Pahoa," said it’s tough for some to understand the appeal of this place, of its old buildings that house a quirky mix of establishments — from a tattoo parlor to a book buyer, a natural-food store and a real estate agent.
But in those businesses, Greene said, she sees her childhood and her friends; she sees Hawaii’s history, the remnants of Hawaiian sugar, of the lumber industry, of so many people from all over the world who converged on this tiny outpost at the turn of the last century and built it from the ground up.
"My great-grandfather was the first sheriff in Puna," Greene said. "I just want to carry on that legacy. I care so much about this town."
THE COUNTY is assisting Pahoa in drafting its design and development plans, which will be presented to the County Council as early as this year.
While the plans are strictly advisory, they do hold sway and are used to help inform development decisions on projects that go before the Council.
Hawaii County started its community-planning effort in 2008, with Kona. So far, four community plans have been developed, and others are in the works.
Todd, of the planning office, said Hawaii island communities are trying to strike a balance "between providing a plan that allows for sufficient growth to take care of housing and employment needs and at the same time preserving and providing enough infrastructure and amenities so that you have a quality of life."
Back at Luquin’s, the Mexican restaurant, Charles Maas, chairman of the Pahoa Regional Town Center’s design committee, said growth may offer a new breath of life to Pahoa — a new chance for the town to be a "shining example" of development done right.
Or, he said, it could go another way.
"Pahoa is going to have to do all the things that Hilo now does. If you want a quart of milk or a roll of toilet paper, it’s going to be Pahoa," he said. "We have a lot of raw land that’s going to get developed. It’s a scary proposition."
Still, Maas is optimistic, in large part because of the groundswell of community support to keep Pahoa’s flair and unique character.
"This," he said, "is a process where our grandchildren are going to sit under the shade of the tree that we’re planting."