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For many Hawaii residents, the rural town of Wahiawa in central Oahu is just a place you drive through when traveling to the beaches on the North Shore or commuting to urban Honolulu.
Fast food restaurants line the small stretch of Kamehameha Highway that snakes through the town. Cars heading north are greeted by signs advertising a pawnshop and several chain stores.
Time has changed Wahiawa. It was long surrounded by Hawaii’s prosperous pineapple plantations, which were one of the state’s main economic motors for most of the 20th century.
Decades later, the town’s farming character has faded. Fields lay fallow, unused farm equipment gathers rust and the elements are chipping away at old barn roofs. Wahiawa residents say crime has gotten worse and young adults are leaving town in search of opportunity.
But Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz is hoping to change all that.
The 40-year-old Dela Cruz has only been in the Senate since 2011. But he’s introduced a slew of bills this year aimed at restoring the area by improving food production around his hometown, and they’re gaining traction.
When the lawmaker talks about the need for jobs in the area, he speaks with urgency.
“When I was a kid, the place was booming,” he said, describing the fields that are languishing.
The town was once at the center of the state’s pineapple industry. Wahiawa is where James Dole started the Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1901.
But the last sugar mill in neighboring Waialua closed in 1996. Today, Dole Plantation is more of a tourist stop than any sort of major economic force. That demise reflects the statewide reality that Hawaii’s agricultural economy is very small and shrinking.
In Wahiawa, residents tend to earn less and are more likely to live below the poverty line than the average person in the state. Dela Cruz compares what happened in the town with the impact of the decline of the coal and auto industries on cities that relied on them.
It wasn’t just the jobs that were lost, Dela Cruz said, it was the sense of community.
He introduced six bills this session to help catalyze the area’s farm economy and help transform Wahiawa into an agricultural business hub.
The measure that has garnered the most attention is Senate Bill 3065, which would allow the state to trade land slated for development in Kapolei in exchange for land owned by the Dole Food Co.
Much of that land is designated for conservation but Dela Cruz wants to hand over 6,000 acres of farmland to the Agriculture Development Corp., the development arm of the state Department of Agriculture, so that the agency can offer long-term leases to Hawaii farmers and spur local food production.
The state imports around 90 percent of its food and has pledged to improve food security.
Other measures, like Senate Bill 2020, aim to promote farming by designating a foreign trade zone in the area to help farmers lower their overhead costs. Sen. Dela Cruz is also pushing Senate Bill 2400, which would create a new program in conjunction with the university to help train new farmers and Senate Bill 2397, which would establish an agricultural technology park.
The senator is also advocating for non-agricultural measures to help improve the town’s economy. Senate Bill 2399 aims to make Wahiawa a center for geriatric research and Senate Bill 3066 would create an agency to facilitate public-private partnerships, starting with a single pilot project in Wahiawa.
Gill Mara, a real estate agent who was born and raised in Wahiawa, said he supports Dela Cruz’s vision because he wants the area to reclaim its sense of “prestige.”
“A lot of people in town (Honolulu) don’t even know where Wahiawa is,” he said.
Others are excited about the possibility of generating jobs so that residents don’t have to drive an hour to the big city for work. Alex Kanamu, a businessman in Wahiawa, worries that once his four children grow up, they’ll leave for good.
Even if he does well financially, Kanamu said, “To me, it’s not success if I don’t have my kids.”
Lawmakers have been talking for decades about the need to preserve agricultural land on Oahu. But with Hawaii’s growing population and housing shortage, it has become more profitable to use land to build houses than to grow food.
Sen. Clayton Hee, who represents part of central and north Oahu, has been a strong advocate for protecting Hawaii’s farmland. He is even a plaintiff in a lawsuit to prevent Koa Ridge in central Oahu from being turned into a master planned community.
Hee said he’s not familiar with all of Dela Cruz’s measures, but supports any efforts to preserve agricultural land in central Oahu.
But even though Hee co-signed the land-exchange bill, he’s not sure how the Agriculture Development Corp. will manage the land. “The main concern is they don’t have a track record to speak of,” Hee said. “Whether or not they are able to hit the ground running is yet to be seen.”
The agency was established in 1994, but only owns about 1,200 acres of land on Oahu, most of which it purchased from Galbraith Estate as recently as December 2012.
There’s also a political question.
Dela Cruz has only been in the Senate for a few years but some of his initiatives are viewed with suspicion because he sponsored the legislation that created the Public Land Development Corporation in 2011.
The PLDC was a state agency charged with developing state land through public-private partnerships. Dela Cruz’s bill allowed the agency to override some county and environmental land use regulations.
The public backlash against the agency was so strong that the acronym “PLDC” became a rallying cry in the state Capitol for Hawaii residents frustrated with the increasing urbanization of the islands and the lack of transparency in the political process.
Lawmakers abolished the PLDC last year in response to public opposition.
“I’m not going to hide and not take risks because I’m afraid,” Dela Cruz said. “If everyone is going to be afraid of introducing bills at the Legislature because of the PLDC we’re never going to have any ideas.”
Still, as a result of the PLDC fiasco, Dela Cruz may have to earn back some public trust to get his bills passed.
While the state land swap has the support of the majority of the Senate, it could have a harder time in the House, especially given intense public scrutiny of bills that promote large-scale agriculture that might involve pesticide use and genetically engineered crops.
Practical and political concerns aside, even if Dela Cruz’s vision does succeed, there’s the question of what new farming jobs might mean for the people of Wahiawa.
Randy Kamisato, a music teacher at Leleihua High School who was born and raised in Wahiawa, said that he’s not convinced his students will graduate from high school to the farm.
“They say, ‘Hell no I’m not going to work at McDonalds,’” he said. “So what makes you think that they would do physical labor?”
But, he added, more jobs in any industry would definitely help the community.