PAHOA, Hawaii >> The one-two punch of the devastating 2018 eruption in Lower Puna and the COVID-19 pandemic may have knocked the wind out of Pahoa’s once-thriving tourist trade, but the former plantation town continues to find ways to stay on its feet, as it has in generations past.
One sign of its resilience is today’s grand reopening of the Pahoa Lava Zone Museum, three years from the day magma first oozed from a fissure in Leilani Estates in the most recent eruption. The museum initially opened in December 2018 before shuttering last year when the coronavirus hit.
Visitors to the modest, two-room museum, open daily from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with free admission, can view a small selection of exhibit props on loan from the now-closed Jaggar Museum at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, along with an expanded collection of volcanic rock specimens and murals by noted Native Hawaiian artist Herb Kane.
Also on display is the lava flow map that was posted at the Puuhonua o Puna gathering spot, nicknamed the Hub, where residents displaced by the eruption found emergency supplies, hot meals and fellowship. Docent William Sullivan pointed to spots on the large map with ink, food and even blood stains from heavy use.
The museum is reopening as tourism rebounds in Hawaii. But on a recent midweek visit to Pahoa town, few tourists were seen strolling along the wooden storefronts that host a funky mix of cafes, awa bars, smoke shops and boutiques.
“There’s not a lot of tourists yet,” said Amedeo Markoff, who heads the Mainstreet Pahoa Association and is active in other community groups. “But there’s traffic, there’s lines at the post office and the Puna Art Collective just opened across the street.”
Indeed, many of the shops and restaurants open at the time of the 2018 eruption are still in business, and some are even expanding. Kaleo’s Bar & Grill, popular among locals and visitors, is opening a new place in Orchidland outside Pahoa. The restaurant’s owner donated the space used to house the Lava Zone Museum.
“We all changed our business models because of the visitor industry collapsing,” Markoff said. “Because that was the low-hanging fruit, that’s what we were all really focusing on. We had to start to cater toward local business more because you can’t rely on tourists.”
Ironically, Markoff’s own Puna Gallery & Gift Emporium didn’t survive the pandemic downturn, forcing him “to fall back on my roots.” He has returned to operating his small Kapoho sawmill, producing custom woodwork and architectural details.
Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz said 2019 saw a major effort to “breathe new life into the town” in the eruption’s wake, with a block party, mural installations at public spaces and other fun events.
“But since COVID everyone’s really suffered, and it’s just been another blow to community and so further investment is needed,” she said.
The town will soon get a fresh coat of paint, literally, to further boost its image. Kierkiewicz said she helped secure grants to refresh some of the storefronts along the old commercial core.
“I think when you improve the visual aesthetic, that does a lot to make people feel as if someone cares, someone is investing in the town,” she said.
Also new since the 2108 eruption is the Puna Kai Shopping Center, which opened last year at the gateway to Pahoa. The center is anchored by a 35,000-square-foot Malama Market.
Instead of drawing away customers from small businesses in Pahoa town, Markoff sees the larger complex as a further draw to keep Puna residents from driving 30 minutes north to Hilo to dine and shop.
Both Markoff and Kierkiewicz said the recent pause in tourism has given Puna’s communities a chance to reexamine and perhaps reshape their relationship with Hawaii’s dominant economic force, a discussion now taking place statewide.
PAHOA LAVA ZONE MUSEUM
The museum is holding a grand reopening and fundraiser.
>> Where: 15-2959 Pahoa Village Road
>> When: 6 p.m. today and Tuesday, with “Lessons From a Lava Fountain” presentation by John Stallman at 7:30 p.m.
>> Cost: $30 for open house with pupu by Kaleo’s Bar & Grill, no-host cocktails; $30 for John Stallman talk; $25 Zoom option
>> Reservations/info: pahoalavazonemuseum.com, 937-4146
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