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Former plantation communities in Hawaii that pivoted to tourism struggle with economic calamity again

  • CHRISTIE WILSON / CWILSON@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Before the pandemic took hold, Paia’s sidewalks were jammed with visitors and locals enjoying the seaside town’s eclectic mix of boutiques, restaurants and galleries. Now, many stores are boarded up or vacant.

    CHRISTIE WILSON / CWILSON@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Before the pandemic took hold, Paia’s sidewalks were jammed with visitors and locals enjoying the seaside town’s eclectic mix of boutiques, restaurants and galleries. Now, many stores are boarded up or vacant.

  • CHRISTIE WILSON / CWILSON@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon on Hana Highway, a Paia institution since 1969, has closed temporarily due to COVID-19, but the rock music-themed chain restaurant Rock & Brews next door, which opened in 2014, has closed for good.

    CHRISTIE WILSON / CWILSON@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon on Hana Highway, a Paia institution since 1969, has closed temporarily due to COVID-19, but the rock music-themed chain restaurant Rock & Brews next door, which opened in 2014, has closed for good.

  • CHRISTIE WILSON / CWILSON@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                It was a slow day for Ginger Prados and Minnie Cain at Tobi’s Shave Ice & Poke in Paia town. The business has been in operation since 1992.

    CHRISTIE WILSON / CWILSON@STARADVERTISER.COM

    It was a slow day for Ginger Prados and Minnie Cain at Tobi’s Shave Ice & Poke in Paia town. The business has been in operation since 1992.

  • COURTESY THE BEALL CORP.
                                Tourists are a rare sighting at Old Koloa Town, a collection of plantation-­era buildings in the heart of the town near Kauai’s Poipu resort area.

    COURTESY THE BEALL CORP.

    Tourists are a rare sighting at Old Koloa Town, a collection of plantation-­era buildings in the heart of the town near Kauai’s Poipu resort area.

  • COURTESY PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO
                                Kuulei Ruiz and Kamaehu Duldulao model ’50s-style costumes fashioned from natural materials by Grace Flowers as part of a social media campaign to promote Honokaa town.

    COURTESY PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO

    Kuulei Ruiz and Kamaehu Duldulao model ’50s-style costumes fashioned from natural materials by Grace Flowers as part of a social media campaign to promote Honokaa town.

PAIA, Maui >> The dusty sidewalks of Paia are mostly empty these days and there’s parking galore, an eerie sight in the former plantation town that survived the demise of the sugar industry by transforming into a tourism magnet trading on its rural heritage and charm.

The Bank of Hawaii branch, the only bank in town, is temporarily closed, shops are boarded up and “for rent” signs are taped on the windows of newly vacant properties lining the two blocks of Hana Highway and Baldwin Avenue that make up Paia’s commercial core.

Rock & Brews restaurant, which opened in 2014 to much fanfare with co-founders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of the rock band KISS in attendance, closed for good in June, and next door, Charley’s Restaurant & Saloon, a gathering spot since 1969, shut its doors temporarily to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic.

The newly formed Paia Community Association estimates 40% of the town’s 71 shops and restaurants are either temporarily or permanently shuttered, among them longtime merchants Moonbow Tropics, Paia Mercantile and Maui Girl Swimwear, which has been featured in Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions.

>> PHOTOS: Former plantation communities struggle during downturn

The collapse of the state’s visitor industry due to COVID-19 has left many former plantation towns across Hawaii on the verge of collapse as well, as they wait for Gov. David Ige to lift the 14-day quarantine requirement for out-of-state travelers that was extended at least through September. These small towns are being forced again to adapt and, perhaps, re-examine their dependence on tourism.

By the time Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. mothballed its Paia mill in 2000, the seaside town of 2,700 residents on Maui’s north shore was already a bustling visitor stop offering an eclectic mix of boutiques, restaurants and galleries.

Kim Ball remembers Paia back in the 1980s, when it was known as the windsurfing capital of the world, with famed ocean playgrounds Hookipa and Kanaha on either side of town. When he opened his Hi-Tech Surf Sports store on Baldwin Avenue in 1982, neighboring businesses included a TV repair shop, a dry cleaner and a general store.

“Back in those days I think we were the only place where you could find boardshorts,” Ball said.

His company has grown to include three other Maui locations and a staff of 50 employees. All four of his stores remain open thanks to a strong local customer base and the pandemic-inspired boom in outdoor recreation witnessed across the country.

Once stay-at-home restrictions in Hawaii were eased, “the floodgates opened and we sold a lot more boards. I think it was the euphoria of breaking out of jail,” Ball chuckled.

Without visitors and local shoppers clogging Paia’s sidewalks, streets and parking lots, vagrants have become more prevalent, according to many who work and live in the area.

“We have a population of homeless and mentally ill that has always been there, but ever since COVID and the closing down of businesses, they are the only ones there and they’ve pretty much taken over, and the problem has become more obvious and in everybody’s faces,” said Susun White, executive director of the Paia Youth & Cultural Center, which operates a skatepark and other programs, next to Lower Paia Park at the entrance to town.

What shocked many residents and those who regularly drive through the area was the long row of cars that began parking for days at a time along the half-mile stretch of Hana Highway from Baldwin Beach Park to Lower Paia Park.

Luke Walsh’s Paia Bowls is located near the latter and across from the county parking lot just off the highway. He opened the cafe in 2016 with his brother, champion surfer Ian Walsh, serving coffee, smoothies and acai bowls.

“Right now I’m at my business looking across the street at a guy who’s screaming at a tree,” Walsh said in a phone interview last week. “He’s obviously mentally ill or on drugs, and there are six other shirtless, shoeless individuals there and a girl wrapped in a blanket who’s screaming at the sky. It’s definitely another scale of harassment or disturbing the peace.

“I do have a heavy heart for them and I do know a lot are mentally ill or have situations in their lives that need special assistance, but there needs to be some sort of line drawn for the community, businesses and the youth center to thrive.”

Two weeks ago after a man ran up and swiped the cafe’s tip jar, Walsh decided he’d seen enough and wrote to county officials about some of Paia’s recent troubles.

“It’s been ongoing, but maybe it all blended in more with the hundreds of cars and tourists walking around town,” he said. “I do think it got worse. The whole situation tends to thrive when businesses and the Paia community is on its heels.”

In response, Mayor Michael Victorino issued a statement last week saying he was “keenly aware of what’s going on in Paia with reports of homelessness, crime, social gatherings and abandoned vehicles.” He noted the Maui Police Department has increased patrols and issued more than 45 citations, including for illegal habitation of vehicles.

Victorino also said the Department of Housing and Human Concerns was surveying the area to locate campsites and offer housing and social services to those in need.

Aside from worrying about unruly homeless individuals, the Paia Youth & Cultural Center has had to adapt operations to accommodate COVID-19 precautions, according to White. It’s still offering programs, but participation is down due to physical distancing limitations and because many kids just don’t like having to wear face masks, she said.

In normal times, the center welcomed up to 80 youths a day including skateboarders. When it reopened in June, the number fell to 55, and with tighter restrictions there are now only about 15 kids a day at the skatepark and 10 at the center, she said.

PYCC also has lost the regular support it got from town restaurants and businesses that have closed, along with cuts in government funding.

“We’re not even asking (for donations),” she said. “We think it’s kind of rude to ask people for money right now.”

The Paia Community Association was organized in response to the economic damage wrought by COVID-19 and is using this downtime in tourism to address some longstanding issues that Director Michael Baskin said will make the community better able to withstand challenges now and down the road.

The association has approached the county about working more closely with its small-town planning staff and streamlining the permitting process that makes it difficult for towns like Paia to improve its pre-statehood structures or develop new properties.

Baskin also said there are plans to add 160 parking stalls on privately owned land adjacent to the 81-stall county lot, and the association wants to open a farmers market to re-emphasize Paia’s agricultural roots and draw residents from other parts of the island.

“We’re trying to figure out ways to diversify the economy and one way is agriculture,” he said.

With more than two dozen eateries in Paia, another item on the association’s list is automatic approval for Maui restaurants to open up to 1,000 square feet of outdoor dining space with appropriate physical distancing.

“We have to find a way for these restaurants to survive, and this could create little parklets or convert parking areas to help the town be a little bit more vibrant so locals will come and shop,” said Baskin, whose three businesses — Paia Inn, Vana Paia sushi bar and Surfclub Tacos — are closed for the time being.

The diversification the community association has in mind includes rebranding Paia as “Maui’s Best Little Surf Town,” spotlighting its reputation as a world-class ocean sports mecca.

Ball is optimistic the town will rebound from the pandemic.

“I think once tourism opens again Paia is still going to be a cool town to eat lunch and have dinner in,” he said. “It’s not a plantation town anymore, but it still has that character in a way. There may be a reshuffling of the deck, but Paia is going to be OK.”

‘It’s just a tough time’

Gramma’s Kitchen, known for its Portuguese dishes and “very homestyle cooking,” sits at the corner of a four-way stop in Honokaa where signs point the way to Waipio Valley, one of Hawaii island’s top visitor attractions.

“You normally see a lot of activity in the town, but not anymore. Nada. Nada,” said Carol Ignacio, who works at the restaurant owned by her son Christopher Ignacio and his wife, Kendra. “It’s tough, it’s really, really tough. Prior to this we had people waiting out the door and our biggest complaint was ‘I’ve been standing here for one hour.’ ”

The local business association estimates that before tourism shut down, 1 million visitors passed through the historic town annually, stopping to enjoy the quaint shops and restaurants that occupy the false-wooden-front buildings along Mamane Street dating back to Honokaa’s days as the heart of a thriving community before Hamakua’s sugar plantations closed in 1993.

Gramma’s Kitchen, which opened six years ago, is luckier than most businesses in Honokaa, which boasts of more buildings on state and national historic registers than any other place in Hawaii. Ignacio said the restaurant’s clientele was evenly split between locals and tourists. Still, with many of the area’s 2,300 residents laid off from their jobs in West Hawaii resorts, business is only a third of what it was.

The restaurant, with a staff of five, is getting by on takeout orders, and Ignacio said they’ve been trying different offerings, such as fried chicken by the box and family meals to-go.

More younger customers and locals from Waimea to the north and Hilo to the south have been stopping by, Ignacio said, and weekends brought large numbers of residents from other islands until Ige reinstated the interisland travel quarantine for passengers arriving in Hawaii, Kauai and Maui counties effective Aug. 11.

“You’re lucky if you see any tourists. But you talk to a lot of locals, they are happy as a camper. It’s forcing us to look at being sustainable here, but it’s a two-edged sword. People’s livelihoods depend on tourism. It’s just a tough time,” Ignacio said.

Sales are down by as much as 90% at Michelle Hartman’s Big Island Grown, which sells gifts and handcrafted items made on Hawaii island.

“It’s pretty much day by day. If things don’t improve pretty soon or we don’t have a change of attitude, things are going to get a lot worse,” said Hartman, who is president of the Honoka‘a Business Association.

The association, which has 70 to 80 members, is in the process of surveying which businesses remain open while developing promotional campaigns. Honokaa’s annual Western Week celebration in May, honoring its paniolo heritage, was held via YouTube and Facebook.

The group also worked with the volunteer community project Connect Aloha to pair a dozen summer interns with town merchants to upgrade their business models and expand their customer bases by setting up websites, moving to online sales, establishing “shops” on the e-commerce website Etsy, and other means.

Ignacio, 76, participated in the internship program, and Gramma’s Kitchen launched its new app Thursday. She said the pandemic is “forcing me to stretch my big-girl panties to look at other ways of doing business.”

“What I do know, though, it isn’t either-or. We need to maintain the old style of business because this is an old-style town but also realize there is a whole other generation that does business in a very different way.”

‘We’ve been devastated’

One by one Jerry Vigil ticked off the names of fellow merchants and restaurants that have closed either temporarily or permanently in Koloa, Kauai, where Hawaii’s first large-scale sugar plantation was established in 1835.

“Even the pizza place couldn’t stay open,” said Vigil, who has operated Emperor’s Emporium for 28 years at Old Koloa Town, a collection of historic plantation-era buildings on Koloa Drive mauka of the Poipu resort area on the island’s south shore.

In July 2019 his shop rang up $55,000 in sales of clothing, knick-knacks and other items, he said. Last month’s total was $1,900.

“If you go outside and look down the street, there are no cars other than the few cars that are outside Sueoka’s,” said Vigil, 79, referring to the family-owned market taken over by ABC Stores in 2019. “There’s nobody left, so I guess I would have to say we’ve been devastated. I know it’s not going to last forever. I think that once they eliminate the quarantine that will help. The thing that’s going to help the most is when they develop a vaccine.”

The town of 2,800 was unable to properly celebrate its annual Koloa Plantation Days agricultural festival last month, holding a virtual observance instead of the usual parade and other festivities.

Kaimuki-based The Beall Corp. owns Old Koloa Town and handles other retail complexes on the neighbor islands and in Waikiki. “Ninety-five percent of our projects rely on tourism, and I don’t see there being any replacement of that. We’re more or less in a hold-your-breath situation until tourism returns,” said President Cory Beall.

In the meantime, he said, four or five of Old Koloa Town’s 19 shops and restaurants have closed and his company is working with tenants on rent relief.

“The whole island — we’ve got properties on the east side, too — is suffering. The (Paycheck Protection Program) was extremely helpful in injecting cash and we are in dire need of a similar additional round of support from the federal level,” he said.

For 20 years Cynde Pangas has owned Jungle Girl Boutique in Old Koloa Town. She said she had to lay off her employees and has managed to stay open only because she owns her inventory of clothing, bedding, jewelry and other merchandise that she manufactures in Indonesia.

Although the store has a local clientele who favor its “modern Bohemian” vibe, Pangas said tourists accounted for 80% of her business. Sales in June were OK while out-of-work residents were getting an extra $600 in unemployment benefits, but “I knew it was a shopping bubble,” Pangas said. “People were spending because they wanted to get out and shop.” Then July hit, the unemployment bonus expired, “and things dramatically changed.”

“July is often times as high volume as December, so that really has been painful,” she said.

Jungle Girl was getting a lot of Oahu customers before the interisland quarantine was reinstated, but Pangas said “this week there’s been nobody.”

There isn’t a formal business association in Koloa, which saw its sugar plantation close in 1996, and Pangas said she was unaware of any concerted effort to boost commerce. Vigil said it wouldn’t matter much if there was.

“There’s little to be done as long as there are no tourists,” he said.

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