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Mayor: ‘People are our greatest strength’ in pandemic

State of the County focuses on response to COVID-19

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino delivers a virtual State of the County address on Tuesday night in a prerecorded message from the Maui Preparatory Academy’s Bozich Center. AKAKU screenshot

Calling the people of Maui County “our greatest strength” over a year of health and economic challenges, Mayor Michael Victorino highlighted the organizations who stepped up to help and the community leaders definining the “new normal” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Victorino delivered his virtual State of the County address Tuesday night in a prerecorded message from Maui Preparatory Academy’s new Bozich Center, a marked contrast from the speech given in February last year when he spoke to an unmasked crowd at an indoor gym.

“When 2019 came to an end, we had just closed a financially lucrative year,” Victorino said. “More than 3 million tourists had visited Maui and our unemployment rate was at a record low. All economic indicators pointed to even greater financial prosperity in 2020.

“Then we got unexpected news from Wuhan, China that would change the whole world.”

Since the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Hawaii on March 6, 2020, Maui County has seen nearly 3,000 cases and 35 deaths. The community has battled nation-high levels of unemployment, watched businesses close and industries suffer, canceled school events and family gatherings and adjusted to new ways of living and working.

Businesses and nonprofits have pitched in to distribute food and emergency funding from county, state and federal sources. Pukalani Superette and Sysco Hawaii partnered with the county to hand out 300 bags of food to Upcountry residents who had lost their jobs. The Maui County Farm Bureau and Hawaii Farmers Union United arranged for the purchase and distribution of local produce that resorts and restaurants were no longer buying. Maui Economic Opportunity processed applications for $3 million in Hawaii Emergency Laulima Partnership funds to help residents with food, utilities and medical needs.

The Maui Chamber of Commerce also received $2 million that went toward interest-free microloans for small businesses, while six local federal credit unions joined with the county to put $8 million in COVID relief funds toward 1,000 small businesses.

Food distributions popped up across the county, spearheaded by local community groups.

“We deeply appreciate everyone who pitched in with their generous gifts of food, money, time and talent,” Victorino said. “More than a million acts of aloha were shared on Maui, Lanai and Molokai without any fanfare or expectation of return.”

The lull in traffic during the pandemic also gave the county time to complete a number of projects, including the resurfacing of more than 12 miles of roadway, the replacement of 3,611 linear feet of drainline and the construction of culverts.

“Countywide, we installed new speed bumps and built new rock protection in Keanae,” Victorino said. “We also completed the new Highways Division baseyard on Molokai. We finished the Maui Lani roundabout five months ahead of schedule, allowing us to ease congestion at that previously busy intersection.”

Maui County also oversaw the renovation of the former University of Hawaii Maui College dorms that will become 12 long-term affordable rentals for homeless families “very soon.” Last year, 290 low-cost rental units were added to the county’s housing inventory, Victorino said.

The county finished construction on the new Maui County Service Center in Kahului in December and invested in properties like the $4 million Hawaiian Telcom Building in Wailuku in hopes of expanding employee workspaces and moving away from rental properties.

The pandemic, Victorino added, also offered the chance for a “great reset.”

“Even before the pandemic, many Maui County families were barely making ends meet,” he said. “We can change this with long-term investments to power our local economy.

“COVID-19 has taught us that locally owned businesses are the foundation of a strong, resilient economy. Local transactions keep money right here in Maui County where it can circulate and grow. That’s why it’s important to invest in homegrown companies and local talent to build an economy that works for all. So, moving forward, I want the County of Maui to use more carrot and less stick to move more quickly in a direction we all need to go.”

He pointed to organizations focusing on technology, farming and tourism management to shape the county’s “new normal.”

Leslie Wilkins, president and CEO of the Maui Economic Development Board, said that the pandemic has opened new possibilities in remote working that will not only help tech-savvy residents get jobs but also keep them at home and “stop the talent brain drain.”

Shan Tsutsui of Mahi Pono and Bobby Pahia of Hoaloha Farms advocated for farmer-friendly regulations, the importance of small and large farmers working together and the need for food security made more dire by the pandemic.

And, Kawika Freitas of Old Lahaina Luau pointed out that a recently released plan aims to address the main concerns of overtourism — “excessive waste, stressed infrastructure and our damaged natural environment.” Freitas was a member of the Maui Steering Committee for the Maui Nui Destination Management Action Plan.

“These local business and community leaders have given us a taste of what our new normal can be,” Victorino said. “The vision for our future is big and bold — and achievable. Our biggest challenge will be balancing our short-term needs with our long-term goals.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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