SECOND OF 6 PARTS
A year after lava from Kilauea Volcano began shooting out of the ground on May 3, choking off tourism and destroying more than 700 homes, Pahoa town still needs any help it can get.
Struggling business owners and the district’s representative on the Hawaii County Council hope to stimulate interest and revenue by shutting down a portion of the former sawmill and sugar plantation town May 11 to bring in a couple dozen food trucks and pop-up vendors for “Activate Puna.”
“It’s going to be a block party,” said Hawaii County Councilwoman Ashley Lehualani Kierkiewicz, who is organizing the one-day event. “Having this kind of celebration to help unify the community is so needed.”
Amedeo Markoff, who owns the Puna Gallery and Gift Emporium, where business remains down 50%, said, “Any stimulus of any kind is urgently needed.”
Markoff, who is active in the Pahoa Main Street Association, is also the driving force behind the Pahoa Lava Zone Museum, which had its soft opening Dec. 1. At the same time, he is trying to develop a new, temporary outdoor market on the site of the landmark Akebono Theater, which was destroyed by fire in January 2017 along with Luquin’s Mexican Restaurant, another community gathering spot.
The proposed Hale Halawai o Puna outdoor market would showcase Hawaiian practitioners and artisans while offering an outlet for locally grown items.
“It’s built on the bones of the Akebono,” Markoff said. “I’ve been working on cleaning up the site for the last six months. We’re targeting visitors and locals alike.”
He expects the market will be temporary, “which could be a few months or a few years.”
When it’s running, Markoff hopes Hale Halawai o Puna will host a wide range of cultural practitioners and craftspeople such as lau hala weavers offering hats and baskets, canoe and tiki carvers, lei makers and others demonstrating traditional games — along with local farmers offering produce and products.
National park’s help
The approximately 1,000-square-foot Pahoa Lava Zone Museum has five exhibits that were lent by the Thomas A. Jaggar Museum at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, which was severely damaged by thousands of eruption-related earthquakes that rocked the park from May to August.
The Pahoa museum’s original collection of a handful of lava samples donated by residents has since expanded to four dozen samples, and it attracts 40 to 50 people per day. The visitors have included a contingent of schoolchildren from New Hampshire.
Four eruption videos play on a loop, and a 45-minute version is offered for sale at the museum. Volunteer docents, meanwhile, represent “the perfect people to talk to a visitor about what we went through,” Markoff said.
At the same time, the lava museum allows local school kids an opportunity to “talk about it and explore the science and cultural aspects of it in an environment that’s informative and culturally sensitive.”
But a museum alone isn’t enough of a draw to attract more visitors to Pahoa town, according to Markoff.
“If we’re to recover tourism to Pahoa, we need many venues,” he said. “You can’t just have one or two things. You have to make it a destination.”
Whatever happens next, Markoff believes that times will get better.
“We have a lot of faith in Pahoa,” he said. “It’s a bootstrap town. We’re used to picking ourselves up.”
From best to worst
A year ago, before the eruption, Pahoa Used Books & Movies on Pahoa Village Road ended its first quarter better than ever. Then everything changed for Pahoa town’s more than 75 mom-and-pop businesses.
“The bookstore was going to have its best year ever, and then the lava started and business dropped in half and never recovered,” said Dean Kelly, who — along with his wife, Kerry — sold the store in late March.
“We cut back on expenses, and we made the nut every month,” Kelly said. “But there was never anything for us.”
Kelly said their decision to sell Pahoa Used Books & Movies coincided with his need for heart surgery in May and a desire to retire “a third time.”
Even after Kilauea went silent in August, business owners say they are still struggling to attract tourists on top of the loss of hundreds of residents from Lower Puna. At least 3,000 residents were evacuated from their homes as lava threatened, and it’s not clear how many left for good.
When he looks down Pahoa Village Road, which runs through the heart of town, Kelly needs only one word to describe the scene today: “Quiet.”
The consensus among business owners is that six businesses closed up shop while the survivors continue to barely scrape by.
“We were down 50% in sales at one point; now I think we’re down 35%,” said state Sen. Russell Ruderman (D, Puna), who owns the Island Naturals Market & Deli in Pahoa. “It has been inching back up, emphasis on inching.”
Ruderman’s two other Island Naturals outlets — in Hilo and Kailua-Kona — are doing fine, he said.
But in Pahoa, Ruderman cut back on store hours as half of his 60-person staff were forced to evacuate and six lost their homes to 2,000-degree lava.
“It affected our staff profoundly,” Ruderman said. “Some folks gave up and moved away, and some are very much in recovery mode. We never had to lay anybody off, because some people moved away, but we did have to cut back on store hours.”
Ruderman blames the slump in business in Pahoa to “both an absence of tourists and an absence of our residents. We lost one-third of our population and 100% of our tourists, so Pahoa is still an economically depressed area.”
Today, Ruderman said, “Pahoa town is still much less populated than before the eruption. It’s quieter and there are fewer tourists.”
Down the street, Matt Purvis, president of the Pahoa Main Street Association and owner of the Tin Shack Bakery, is still paying off a loan he took out to keep paying his 24 employees, two of whom eventually quit.
Although first-quarter sales were down 30%, Purvis is now seeing a recovery at his bakery.
“I’ve had it easier than some people because I have a lot of local, repeat business,” he said.
He’s also a bit more optimistic than other business owners.
“People are starting to come back,” Purvis said. “I do see people traveling here. And people are returning home after having gone away during the lava crises.”