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Lee Cataluna: Decades of warnings by Hawaii governors to diversify the economy never heeded

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 1960s
                                Sixty years ago, the amazingly prescient Gov. John A. Burns urged growing the economy through Hawaii-owned companies rather than looking to outside money.

    STAR-ADVERTISER / 1960s

    Sixty years ago, the amazingly prescient Gov. John A. Burns urged growing the economy through Hawaii-owned companies rather than looking to outside money.

For more than 50 years, Hawaii’s governors have warned about the need to diversify the economy.

Gov. George Ariyoshi, who led the state from 1974 to 1986, was already looking at the reliance on the visitor industry as problematic for Hawaii back then.

“We have an economic base that will be dependent on the visitor industry for a long time. But we don’t want that to be the only economic alternative for the future. We must diversify and we must bring about some other economic activity,” Ariyoshi said in 1981.

Even before Ariyoshi, in the early ’70s, Gov. John A. Burns talked about expanding the trade base between Hawaii and Japan to boost the export of Hawaii-made and -grown products.

“This, in turn, would help Hawaii to diversify our economy, particularly through small- and medium­-size manufacturing and processing ventures,” Burns said.

In 1986, as the signs that Hawaii’s sugar industry was in trouble became hard to ignore, Gov. John Waihee gave a speech supporting sugar but calling for other viable alternatives. “Think of what sugar means to us, not just jobs, but in the retention of space and in rural development. Let the message be loud and clear, if we lose sugar, we all lose,” Waihee said.

At the same time, he talked about diversifying Hawaii’s economy, though in that era, that meant diversifying tourism, seeking visitors from other untapped markets.

In the mid-’90s, Gov. Ben Cayetano hit that same warning hard in his State of the State address.

“We must diversify our economy, strike a better balance among economic, environmental and social objectives, and lay the foundation for a better-­educated and higher-­skilled workforce and population,” Cayetano said. “Tourism drives our economy, but we must diversify our economy and recognize our strength in services … and the Pacific Rim as our primary market.”

Gov. Linda Lingle, in the middle of her two terms in office from 2002 to 2010, said, “Our state’s greatest challenge in the coming years is a true restructuring of our economy.” She talked about transitioning “from one that creates wealth through buying and selling of land to one that creates wealth through innovation and new ideas.”

Gov. Neil Abercrombie had his “New Day” plan as he took office in 2010. Part of that plan was to, of course, diversify Hawaii’s economy.

“Jobs in energy, agriculture and environmental protection will be a cornerstone in a new sustainable economy in Hawaii,” he said.

All those warnings, but we know what happened. Former fertile fields became vast housing developments. Hawaii stopped making stuff to export. Hawaii didn’t innovate. Hawaii went all-in on tourism.

So here we are, where the hypothetical economic crash has become very real because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the ideas of over half a century have been paved over to make lookalike houses, self-­storage lockers and dog parks.

Sixty years ago, the amazingly prescient Burns urged growing the economy through Hawaii-owned companies rather than looking to outside money.

In his words: “I would like to add that all outside investments … must observe our state and federal laws. We also expect them to help us achieve Hawaii’s goals of preserving our precious environment and contributing to our economy.”

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