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Learning to say goodbye

Living on Maui means learning to say goodbye to friends. Some may have been transplants you knew would never last, while others were lifelong residents no one ever expected to leave.

Local folks have long pulled up stakes to seek better job opportunities on the Mainland or to relocate where they can afford a house and property. Others seek higher education or want to be near grandkids. Mainlanders often stay here for a period of time, whether it be two or 20 years, and then decide it’s time to move on.

We ran a photo this week of a farewell in Wailuku. Maui girl Ellie Shellooe was shown hugging close friend Natalie Nichols goodbye on a Main Street sidewalk. Shellooe said after growing up on the island, COVID-19 was forcing her to move to Las Vegas where she had already secured a job in the tourism industry. She had been furloughed from the same industry on Maui for nearly a year before her position was terminated.

“There’s definitely a lot of feelings,” she said. “I’m spreading my wings. I have a job starting four days after I get in.”

Her departure begs the question, how many others are abandoning the island due to the economic downturn? It’s hard to put a finger on current numbers, but a recent study by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization provides some anecdotal evidence. UHERO’s report says 32 percent of landlords are struggling to stay profitable and the rental vacancy rate in Hawaii is substantially higher compared to pre-COVID.

How many young adults who worked at hotels, restaurants and shops have moved back to California to hunker from the pandemic with their parents? This represents lost income not just for landlords but businesses across the economy.

Will workers like Shellooe come back when tourism returns in earnest? If they don’t, will Maui have enough qualified people to fill the positions?

It seems likely that the hospitality workforce will meet demand. We have a lot of energetic homegrown talent on this island. And there has rarely been a shortage of people interested in moving here to work. The tough part has been making it economically feasible for them to stay. This applies to recruiting physicians, teachers and accountants as much as it does pool attendants and cocktail wait staff.

A look at real estate prices shows one reason why people are quitting Maui. Regular wage-earners cannot compete with buyers who swiftly scoop up old single-wall plantation homes in working-class neighborhoods for $900,000.

Even when Maui’s economy is back to booming, halting the exodus it is going to take affordable housing, fair rents and livable wages. Without providing pathways for families and individuals to succeed, we will continue to bid farewell to best buddies, co-workers and dynamos in the community.

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