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At a time when Hawaii government has been facing public backlash over development and land use, now comes a unique twist in which it is the state’s Department of Transportation seeking to shut down the nonprofit Naval Air Museum Barbers Point at Kalaeloa.
For some, “Kalaeloa Airport” is a doozy to say and a tough name to remember, as the former Naval Air Station Barbers Point is a memory not easily erased for many military and dependents.
Today, the airbase which is now managed by the state, like so much of Oahu, is overrun by tall weeds and looks shabby and neglected. The late Sen. Daniel Inouye had repeatedly attempted to nullify the effects of the 1993 Base Realignment and Closure commission and beef up the Hawaii economy with defense dollars by making the suggestion to several presidents that they bring back to Barbers Point a fighter squadron or a carrier air wing, but this was unsuccessful as the Pentagon ultimately favored building up Guam because of its proximity to Asia.
When I first moved to Hawaii in December 1979, my father was assigned to Hickam Air Force Base and we lived in Makakilo, which meant that Barbers Point provided a close place for us to go shopping at the base commissary and provided health care for me and my family at the clinic there.
At its height, Barbers Point was abuzz with military personnel and aircraft alike and was a modern, well-kept facility that was essential to the defense of both Hawaii and the United States. When I returned to Hawaii from the mainland after getting my master’s degree in January 2003, I couldn’t even recognize the place, and was deeply saddened by how the historic base was being dismantled for private development.
The historic military aircraft being preserved and displayed by the Naval Air Museum Barbers Point are all that remains of the legacy of Hawaii’s role in preventing nuclear hostilities and winning the Cold War for America. While some of the aircraft on display are on loan from mainland aviation museums, their presence at Kalaeloa is a link to the past that allows visitors to remember what it was like when America was a superpower that stood courageously against communist aggression.
According to a story last month in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the state alleges that the museum has failed in regards to compliance with insurance, environmental standards and aircraft parking regulations, but to evict the organization from what is already a sleepy hollow facility seems unusually harsh. The museum’s leadership insists that it has made every effort to comply.
A state government that typically walks on tiptoes for fear of displacing or damaging ancient cultural artifacts – even at the risk of undermining economic activity – seems highly unreasonable in shooing away a nonprofit museum that is preserving an important part of our history.
Some people have a deep emotional connection to many of the aircraft there. The museum, which allows individuals to interact with the aircraft by touching the planes or even sitting in the cockpit, gives military and their families a way to reconnect to moments in both history and their lives that involved great hardship or sacrifice on behalf of the country’s greater good.
Even among today’s keiki who are too young to remember the Cold War, seeing the planes and sitting in the cockpits can evoke interest in aerospace science and flight in general, both of which are STEM gateways for our future.
Let’s be clear, laws exist for a reason, and there are big reasons for regulatory compliance, especially at an airport. But the state of Hawaii should see the museum as a valued community partner to work with, not a hostile squatter to eject. Regulatory agencies like the Department of Transportation have constitutional authority to make exemptions in special circumstances and to selectively enforce the law for the greater good.
We have already seen how the state, as a whole, handles compliance to its own laws, as the State Auditor for decades has hammered nearly every state agency for being a melting pot of negligence, incompetence, conflicts of interest and sometimes willful corruption. The message that the public gets when the state does these things but then throws the book at community organizations or private individuals for minor infractions of the law is that there are two standards for justice in Hawaii.
Military veterans and their dependents are not the type that are prone to engage in mass protests, acts of civil disobedience or dramatic stunts to call attention to their causes. They want to obey the law and remain at the former airbase, and the state should allow them to work through whatever compliance issues they have.
There is a historical and educational imperative to show the museum some grace. The purpose of local state government is to help people obey the law, not to use the law as a means to disenfranchise engaged citizens or deter useful activities.
Gov. David Ige, who has ranked in the top 10 least popular governors in 2019, should take that into consideration and look for ways to help community organizations like the Naval Air Museum Barbers Point to improve both his standing and the state of Hawaii’s standing among locals. It’s the least they can do for us.
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