Editor’s Note: This is the first of two columns by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz discussing why Hawaii is not doing as much as it could to boost the economy and how it can be better.

In 1999, the Honolulu Star Bulletin published an article by Lavonne Leong, “Isles Lose Many of the Best and Brightest.” When University of Hawaii graduates in finance were asked, “What advice would you offer current and soon-to-be graduating students in your major?” almost twenty-five percent responded, “Move to the mainland.”

Let’s fast forward to 2012. Is the advice the same?

We have heard the catch phrases of “diversify our economy” and “reverse the brain-drain” time and time again for more than 30 years. We have even heard the terms “gateway” and “where east meets west.” And what progress have we made?

The world is rapidly changing and we are discussing the same challenges and reliving the same debates. Same approaches to same problems have given us “what should have been obvious” same results.

Simply put, we must have a common goal to make Hawaii the most globally competitive state and Honolulu the most globally competitive city starting yesterday. We all need to feel the sense of urgency.

Cities encouraging redevelopment and mixed-use are more competitive offering graduates more money, more opportunities and prestige. Simply put, Hawaii is not globally competitive enough to keep students born and raised in Hawaii at home or offer them a lateral profession to draw them back home. Census reports show that in 1997 and 1998, almost 17,000 more people moved from Hawaii to the mainland than vice-versa. Hawaii continues to lose its best and brightest.

This problem stems from a shortage of affordable housing, low-paying salaries, and a lack of opportunities. Yet, in other globally competitive cities high home prices and the high cost of living are offset by higher paying careers.

These careers come from businesses seeking to position their companies in competitive cities that appeal to capital, business, talent and tourism. Citigroup and the Economist Intelligence Unit evaluated these components when they conducted their annual report for the most competitive cities in the world. Honolulu did not even make the cut out of 120 cities.

More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Initiatives to address the accelerating urbanization have resulted in award-winning thriving cities. Given the rapid growth and development of cities and emerging markets, competition for new businesses to invest or relocate will only get fiercer. Yet, Hawaii continues to perpetuate more and more sprawl that increases our dependency on the automobile, eliminates any possibility of a main street that can support small and local business, and increases government expenses due to additional roads, sidewalks, schools, police and fire stations, sewers. This ultimately makes us less globally competitive.

In 2008, the world experienced the worst economic downturn since The Great Depression. Commerce almost came to a halt while governments refocused on bailing out industries and financial institutions. Since then, we continue to look back at this as an example of how global economies can instantly decline. Economies are still recovering from the Great Recession; however, there are cities in the post-recession global economy that have rebounded much faster and stronger than many in their region, even other countries. The key is growth.

Competition happens with cities of all sizes. Density is key factor for larger cities to be competitive. Bigger cities diversify the workforce. Poor planning in big cities leads to congestion and other infrastructure issues resulting in impediments to their competitiveness. Proper planning in dense urban cores contributes to higher productivity. Compare efficient density design to inefficient urban sprawl and you will see a far better performing economy in denser areas.

All of these ideas support Honolulu becoming a global leader:

  • center of diplomacy, “The Geneva of the Pacific”
  • center of technology, “The Silicon Valley of the Pacific”
  • center for film, culture and arts, “The Hollywood of the Pacific”

We must all rethink how we pursue and encourage proper development and more importantly redevelopment.

In September 2010, NBC News launched “Education Nation” in an attempt to engage the public on how to provide the world’s best education. One of the aspects of this campaign was global competitiveness. Hawaii, like many states across the country, continues to focus on skills in basic development and workforce preparation. Albeit important to the education system, to truly be globally competitive, Hawaii must create a globally competitive environment that supports a new level of competency. This paradigm shift needs to take place. Global competency skills are necessary so that future generations can create future opportunities here that remain here. What economic investments are being made that are attractive to both our local population and our industry leading companies?

We need to approach this holistically. We need to re-evaluate our system and plan accordingly. Without a vision the state, counties, departments and agencies work in silos. Time and time again we stop and ask, “What are we good at? How are we competitive?” There needs to be action to reform and develop our urban core. Focusing on our large and middleweight communities is urgent in creating more productive jobs to meet the aspirations of today’s young workforce. We need to diversify and attract tourists, capital, businesses and talent. Hawaii needs to become a top-tier city considered by entrepreneurs, businesses, or investors when these economic drivers are starting up, creating something new or have a big idea. If we truly aspire to have a world-class city, Hawaii must engage the world. To be truly competitive we must be global, and local, at all times.

About the author: Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz represents parts of central Oahu and the north shore. Most recently, he served as Chair of the Committee on Water, Land, and Housing.

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