At mid-morning two days before Christmas, about 20 cars dot the Hauula Kai shopping center parking lot 31 miles north of Honolulu on Kamehameha Highway. Not all of the retail spaces are filled. But the stretch from Tamura’s Market on one end to a post office on the other acts as a sort of living community center.

Shoppers amble into the grocery store in a slow trickle, each emerging after a few minutes with some last-minute food items for the holiday. At the other end, a modest early-lunch crowd begins accumulating at locally owned restaurant Papa Ole’s Kitchen.

On a nearby residential street, a vacant foreclosed home sits among houses squeezed onto small lots furnished with well-used clotheslines and makeshift carports. At least half are trimmed with icicle Christmas lights. A half-mile down the highway, newer and larger homes stand on estate-sized lots lining a country road. It hardly seems the setting for one of Hawaii’s most booming micro-economies — but that is exactly what Hauula is, according to a Civil Beat analysis of recent Census data.

The median household income in Hauula, population 3,260,1 jumped from $38,190 in the 2000 Census to $70,375 in 2009, according to American Community Survey data released by the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this month. The dramatic increase raised the little town’s ranking from 96th to 39th among 131 Census Designated Places statewide, according to an analysis of the data by Civil Beat.2

Over the same time period, Hauula’s poverty rate dropped from 19 percent to 8.7 percent — a 54 percent decrease. The change brought the town’s poverty ranking from near the bottom of Hawaii communities to the middle of the pack.

Busier Than Ever

The positive economic numbers don’t surprise 63-year-old Dotty Kelly-Paddock, one of three Hauula members on the Koolauloa Neighborhood Board. The former grant writer for the University of Hawaii‘s Center on Disability Studies has lived in Hauula for about 20 years.

“There’s more business here at the shopping center and the parking lot is fuller than it’s ever been,” Kelly-Paddock said as she loaded grocery bags and boxes into her van. She gestured back toward the local restaurant: “Papa Ole’s is kind of the hub of the community.”

There are also more people showing up at community association meetings, she said. Overall, townspeople seem increasingly interested in improving their neighborhood. The owners of many of the town’s older homes appear to be renovating them, Kelly-Paddock said.

Another positive sign for the town is that students are doing better at the local school. Reading proficiency at Hauula Elementary School has increased from 32 percent in 2001 (the first year students were tested) to 60 percent last year. Math proficiency jumped from 7 to 39 percent.

The percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches remained flat, at roughly 72 percent.

“We’re feeling positive,” said Kelly-Paddock, who also serves on the school community council.

Good for Business

The shopping center is the main — and almost only — center of business in Hauula. A couple of convenience stores and restaurants along Kamehameha Highway are the only other storefronts.

Writer and self-described professional psychic Alice Ann Parker, who has lived in Hauula for 20 years with her husband, said the town seems to contain a lot of entrepreneur types who come up with creative income sources. The man living across the street from her works in construction and performs hourly work like trimming trees. A family nearby grows and sells flowers. The woman next door owns her home and rents out rooms to members of the military.

Cedric Kanoa, 48, is one of those entrepreneurs. Six years ago, he quit his job as a cook at the school and opened Papa Ole’s. He now sees an average of 300 customers per day and, with the help of his 12 employees, caters a variety of events.

“So far, business has been good for us,” he said. “Every year it gets better. It’s busy, and there are a lot of people now — more cars on the road. But I guess we can share our side of the island with them.”

Still, Parker said, it seems like a lot of people from Hauula commute to Honolulu.

There are a good number of new and under-construction homes in Hauula. The newer houses up the road from Parker have changed hands every few years since they were built.

Some of the new houses are also second homes or vacation rentals, Parker pointed out. These typically belong to “snowbirds,” whose larger-than-average incomes could have skewed the town’s median income and poverty levels, depending on who was counted. The decennial census, which gives us our 2000 numbers, records the data based on the usual, or primary residence. The American Community Survey, which provides us with our 2009 numbers, counts snowbirds wherever they are when the count is actually taken. (Read more about the count methodology here.)

Large employers nearby include Turtle Bay, Brigham Young University-Hawaii and the Polynesian Cultural Center — together employing more than 2,200 people in full- and part-time positions. All three are located just a few miles north on Kamehameha Highway.

“People almost have to work elsewhere,” said Kelly-Paddock. “There are a lot of people in the construction business who work all over the island, too, but people are willing to drive back here because it’s a great place to live. It’s a beautiful area and we have wonderful natural resources here.”

Hauula benefits from its proximity to Laie.

Its shopping center is open on Sundays, attracting residents of the town whose stores close on the day of worship observed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Two days before Christmas, a steady stream of traffic flows to and from the Polynesian Cultural Center, passing in front of Hauula’s shopping center. Most of the cars pass by, but by noon a sizable crowd has filled the picnic tables outside Papa Ole’s.

“It’s been a little slower because I think people are saving up to buy Christmas gifts,” Kanoa said. “But it stays pretty busy, and that’s good for me and good for business.”

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