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Candidates weigh in on ag, tourism, homelessness

Forum features all candidates for mayor except for incumbent Victorino

Bell

Tourism, homelessness and agriculture are pressing concerns among the Maui County community that mayoral candidates hope to address.

During the COVID-19 pandemic when the tourism industry came to halt, state and county leaders as well as residents saw how the islands’ natural ecosystem flourished while the economy floundered.

Meanwhile, Maui County farmers and ranchers have continued to cope with drought, water restrictions, feral ungulate control and loss of livestock and crops.

Community members also had divided opinions over “a sweep” or county “intervention” of a homeless encampment on Amala Place last year. Still, the event showed the realities of the growing population of folks living on the streets.

Candidates participating in the Maui County mayoral race — Kim Brown, Cullan Bell, Alana Kay, Jonah Lion, Council Members Mike Molina and Kelly King and retired judge Richard Bissen — shared their thoughts and solutions on the big challenges that lie ahead during an online forum hosted by native Hawaiian youth organization Ka Leo O Na ‘Opio. Incumbent Mayor Michael Victorino was the only candidate not in attendance.

Bissen

MANAGING TOURISM

A big reason why a lot of young adults leave Maui, or don’t return after college, is because they cannot find the career or industry they are looking for, with wages high enough to support moving home, said King, who currently holds the South Maui residency seat on the council.

“We need to give our young people the opportunities to have careers beyond tourism,” King said on Monday evening. “We have to start expanding into things like technology, health care, agriculture is a big part of our expanding economy and diversification, and we have to start supporting the film industry, the policemen, the teachers — the areas where we have vacancies.”

Similarly, Kay said, “managed tourism” can be addressed by putting a stop to building more hotels and focusing more on diversifying the economy, such as agriculture, and improving workforce development in Maui County programs and schools.

“We have hit our carrying capacity here on the island. … Our roads and our ecosystem can’t handle it,” Kay said. “It causes the values of the properties to be so out of reach that the workforce can’t afford to live here.”

Brown

Having a hotel moratorium; establishing “blackout months,” or pauses in tourism, to allow the island to recoup; or imposing heavier taxes on the industry are some ways to “better manage tourism,” said Bell, noting how the large influx of visitors are impacting roadways, property, ocean water quality and residential access.

Lion believes sustainable tourism can be achieved through education.

Before vacationing in Hawaii, the mentality can be changed so that people are also coming with the intention “to learn, give back, and be a part of what’s going on here and learn to contribute” to the land and culture, he said.

However, much of the frustrations surrounding the visitor industry “is a reaction to our needs not being met,” said Brown, a Makawao resident.

“The residents have been ignored here. This doesn’t become an issue when we, us, collectively, our needs are being met — food, shelter and water,” said Brown, who’s also the CEO of Akamai Coffee Company. “One of the things as a business owner is that I want to take care of my employees. When my employees are taken care of, like when the island’s taken care of, we can better serve others.”

Kay

Though officials should be mindful of the island’s capacity, including residents and nonresidents, it’s not so much about how many visitors there are on Maui, but where they are going, Bissen said.

Historically, the original plan was for tourists to remain on certain parts of the island, such as in resort areas, but “what we’re seeing is how they are spilling out into other parts of the community,” he said.

“If they were in the resort areas, people probably wouldn’t pay as much attention, but the fact that they’ve gone into the areas where locals come into contact with them, the issues become prevalent,” Bissen said.

Molina, who holds the Makawao-Haiku-Paia residency seat, said “it changed the whole game” when short-term rentals in small-town community neighbors became available, describing the situation as “Pandora’s box.”

Overlapping solutions by both Molina and Bissen on Monday evening included offering more education, describing what’s permissible and how to respect the island, keeping visitors in the hotel-zoned areas, encouraging participation in a local cause and protecting resources to ensure a better quality of life for residents.

King

“Tourism will certainly remain a major part of our economy, but again, it’s a double-edged sword because now it’s impacted our quality of life,” Molina said. “I’m in favor of charging tourists who use our county beach parks to help offset our cost to maintain our county parks and the like.”

SUPPORTING LOCAL FARMERS, RANCHERS

Connecting farmers to resources like modern tools and methods, funding, water and infrastructure will be one of Bissen’s goals if elected as mayor.

“It’s time for us to support ag tech to help our farmers into the 21st century with farming methods, helping them with improving their crops as well as getting them to market and being able to compete with prices on the Mainland,” he said.

With a Maui County Department of Agriculture coming soon, Molina said this will help small farmers and ranchers facilitate more of their concerns so that their needs are met.

Lion

“I’d like Maui to become food exporters rather than importing. We can provide subsidies through government grants and also I’d like to see a system set up where farmers can rent heavy equipment because for many farmers, they cannot afford purchasing these large pieces of equipment,” he said. “Considering reducing water rates, I think it will be helpful too, as well as subsidizing any land costs for farming.”

Echoing the need for better water management and funding opportunities, Kay and Lion said food security, education and environmental sustainability are essential.

“Let’s take the lessons we’ve learned, learning from our past and looking at our ahupua’a systems and Hawaiian permaculture and all that information, that wisdom, that is present here and cultivate that,” Lion added. “I think ecocultural tourism is a big piece because we need to be in care and mindfulness of how to care for the land and also know how to care for the people’s land.”

The top concern for Brown is the high water rates, referencing how locals are paying much higher bills than farming company Mahi Pono, the joint venture of a California farming company and a Canadian pension fund.

“That needs to change immediately,” she said.

Having a community water authority, which is a proposed charter amendment that may appear on the ballot this year, would ensure more control over water delivery resources, King said. She believes that healthy food systems can be achieved through fair water rates, local food processing, hunting, marketing and the availability of grants.

“Sometimes looking to the future means looking into the past,” said Bell, who was helping to restore lo’i fields at Honomanu Bay over the weekend.

He talked about restoring water access to farmers and ranchers to “bring life back into the soil,” which would help with growing produce and crops, promoting government transparency and reducing dust storms in dry areas.

“Water has been mismanaged for a long time,” he added.

HANDLING HOMELESSNESS

All mayoral candidates agreed that the Maui County cleanup of Amala Place was a conflicting solution to homelessness concerns.

Having access to counseling, job development and other resources like charging stations and hygiene units would be “a more humane way” of dealing with the homelessness issue, Kay said.

“We really need to put our heads together as a community and see how we’re going to solve this,” she said. “I’d love everyone to be more open-minded about it because it’s not just the mentally ill or substance abusers that are homeless.”

The homelessness problem is a reflection of whether “you have a healthy community,” said Brown. In other words, if residents feel stable, safe and prosperous in their own lives, then they will feel more willing and capable of helping those in need, she added.

“One thing I do support is expanding services to each district — right now we only have shelters in Central and West Maui,” said King.

Both Bissen and King said identifying safe places to park overnight paired with increasing mobile hygiene units are also crucial because there are individuals who are employed or have children, but are just houseless.

“What you’re doing is restoring their dignity,” Bissen said. “There’s much we can do for our homeless.”

While tackling the housing crisis at hand, establishing designated self-policed areas that contain temporary shelters or tiny homes is another way to mitigate the growing homeless population, Molina said.

“We also need to look into locations where we can bring the support services that are nearby,” he added. “A lot of our folks who are homeless need mental health services and other types of health care.”

Figuring out who makes up the homeless population is the first step to tackling the problem, Bell said, so that nonprofits and government entities can figure how best to help them.

“I think a big, big issue that we’re having here is that we’re bringing a whole bunch of homeless from out of state and I definitely think that needs to be addressed,” Bell added.

In 2020, Lion helped with the Hungry Homeless Heroes initiative, which provided between 300 to 500 meals a day sourced from local farms or donations from grocers.

He hopes to launch another initiative, like with hemp production, in order to integrate opportunities for more jobs, homegrown infrastructure, rehabilitation and education.

“These are our communities, these are our family,” he said. “Especially with what’s been going on, any one of us at any point in time can be that much closer (to homelessness) given the housing crisis, given what making money here on Maui can look like, the expense of everything, from our food, to our shelter and to our water.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

Molina

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