Wahiawa, located in the central plains of Oahu, was once the second-largest city in the Hawaii territory, the home of a global pineapple empire that employed thousands of people in the islands. And it sits in a remarkable location, on a peninsula surrounded by water, a kind of island within an island, with a lush botanical garden stretching through its core.
But the decades-long collapse of the pineapple industry brought economic devastation to Wahiawa, and in recent decades, many people living in Honolulu and windward Oahu have come to think of the dusty, rundown town as just a place to stop for gas on the way to the North Shore.
“We’re the only city on the island without a Starbucks,” said Keoni Ahlo, president of the Wahiawa Community and Business Association, which was founded in 1935. “It’s kind of sad, actually.”
All that may be about to change.
Wahiawa, already affected by the growth of nearby Mililani and the advent of the massive Koa Ridge development being built by Castle & Cooke, is seeing signs of revitalization closer to home with several new developments and a large new state park.
The growth is being greeted with a mixture of hopeful anticipation, fear of gentrification and heartfelt yearning for Wahiawa’s agricultural past.
At the most recent meeting of the Wahiawa-Whitmore Village Neighborhood Board, five new projects were presented for review, drawing intense and thoughtful questioning from area residents. Two were housing projects, a 25-unit housing development called Kaala Highlands and a new therapeutic living program that will house 40 people in a converted nursing home on Lakeview Circle.
An abandoned, weed-strewn warehouse that once housed Tamura’s Wholesale Outlet, located at the intersection of California Avenue and Plum Street, is being converted into a state-funded think tank and experimental agricultural products center for aspiring entrepreneurs. It will be operated by Leeward Community College.
Board members also learned about a $1.5 million state-funded design proposal to make improvements at the 66-acre Wahiawa Freshwater State Recreation Area and were told that that planning has begun for a new 2,800-acre state park, the Helemano Wilderness Area, whose entrance will be northeast of Wahiawa, near Dole Plantation. The new state park is expected to draw hordes of hunters, hikers and off-road vehicles.
Just discussing the new projects consumed much of the three-hour meeting. It was a lot to take in, board members said later.
“We were all rather shocked at the things that are happening,” said Silvia Koch, a board member who has lived in the town for more than 50 years.
“There’s all kinds of stuff coming — it’s pretty wild,” said Ahlo. “We’re hoping for a Renaissance without gentrifying. Half want Wahiawa to stay the same forever and half want it to change.”
Everyone who lives there will be affected by what’s coming, said 15-year Wahiawa resident Larry Meacham.
“There’s more construction and more housing. People have discovered Wahiawa,” Meacham said.
The worry about gentrification is widespread. Wahiawa is one of the last surviving bastions of affordable housing on the island, and many low-income workers have flocked to live there, in some cases with as many as a dozen people packed into modest plantation homes designed for small families.
At the board meeting, the developer of the 25-unit housing complex said the units would be “modestly priced” in the $700,000 range, getting a quick rebuttal from community activist T. J. Cuaresma, who pointed out that many area residents would be priced out.
“How in heck are we supposed to afford $700,000?” the long-time Wahiawa resident asked.
But the development proposal wasn’t pummeled as it would have been in other communities. As the housing developer concluded his presentation, board president Jeanne Ishikawa asked the audience to give him a “round of applause,” and the crowd politely clapped.
The state park proposal drew nods of approval from the board and the audience but also concerns about whether it would increase traffic.
“It will be wonderful to have a place in nature where you can go hiking,” said board member Lei Learmont, in an interview. But any increase in the number of cars could be problematic. “Traffic already is really hard,” she said.
Wahiawa is a historically important place in Hawaii.
About 1 mile from the town is one of Oahu’s ancient cultural sites, the Kukaniloko Birthing Stones, where the most powerful families in Hawaii once traveled for the birth of children they hoped would one day rule. The site, located off Kamehameha Highway, sits on a plateau surrounded by overgrown fields, fringed with a distant but dramatic backdrop of mountain ridges.
In the past, the landscape must have looked much different than it does now. In his “Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii,” Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau described Wahiawa as forested, the location of the largest sandalwood trees. That fragrant wood was cut down, harvested to exhaustion by Hawaiian alii who became wealthy selling it to ship captains who marketed it in China.
In the early 1900s Wahiawa farmers began cultivating pineapple, a popular luxury item in the United States since colonial days. The fruit grew well on the arid central plains of Oahu. Canning operations began in Wahiawa in 1903. The construction of the Oahu Rail and Land Co. allowed fruit to be transported more easily to Honolulu and from there to the United States and around the world. Wahiawa was the center of this burgeoning business.
The small companies that had pioneered the industry consolidated and some grew into huge agricultural conglomerates. The Wahiawa-based firm led by James B. Dole was at the forefront of the trend.
The booming business hired workers from around the world, housing them in plantation villages around the Wahiawa area.
Many of the former pineapple workers subsequently went into business for themselves in Wahiawa, then a bustling, thriving city. By 1949, the shops included Al Wonder’s watch repair shop, Shigeo Tanji’s photo studio, Robert Matsukawa’s insurance agency, Ming Pang’s Elite Market and Haruo Honda’s tofu factory, according to “Wahiawa: From Dream To Community,” a history of the town written by Lani Nedbalek in 1984. Wahiawa had movie theaters and a department store.
But wages in Hawaii were high compared to those in other countries that raised pineapple and in time, it became too costly to compete in the global market. Other countries imposed tariffs to protect their domestic pineapple industries but the United States did not, and the jobs slowly siphoned away, with local fruit companies gradually shifting production away from Hawaii.
The decline of the Hawaiian pineapple industry hit Wahiawa hard, long-time residents recall.
Cuaresma, who is of Filipino descent, described families living under intense stress over decades, waiting to learn when their jobs would be cut and wondering what they would do when that happened. Some men died young because they worried themselves to death, she believes.
“All the skills they had revolved around the plantation,” she recalled.
So military booms and busts exacerbated the economic swings in the city of 17,000, said former state Rep. Marcus Oshiro, a Wahiawa native who represented the area in the Legislature from 1994 to 2017. When the U.S. Army goes to war and service members are sent abroad, Wahiawa gets a double hit, first from the soldiers and then from their family members, who usually go home to be with their families when their spouses are deployed, he said.
When that happens, local businesses are hit hard, he said.
But Wahiawa has had the good fortune to be the childhood home of one of the handful of people who control the state’s purse strings. Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who has chaired the Senate Ways and Means Committee since August 2017, has steered state money to the town for a variety of projects.
“We’re hoping for a Renaissance without gentrifying. Half want Wahiawa to stay the same forever and half want it to change.” — Keoni Ahlo, president of the Wahiawa Community and Business Association.
Of the five projects unveiled at the Wahiaha neighborhood board in November, two of the plans — the redesign of the freshwater park and the agricultural products think tank — occurred because they were backed by Dela Cruz.
In an interview, Dela Cruz said the intent of the Leeward Community College project was to find ways to create new agriculture-based products, such as juices, pickled fruits, spirits, lotions, cookies and candies. Those, he said, can be marketed elsewhere and produce jobs in Hawaii, bringing back agricultural work to Wahiawa.
“None of us wants large hotels or things that are not compatible with our history,” he said. “We need to build capacity, with local engagement.”
The state Department of Agriculture’s Agribusiness Development Corp. bought the property in 2013 for $4.29 million, according to Pacific Business News. Reconfiguring the structure will cost $12 million, according to a draft environmental assessment.
Area resident Grace Dixon, founder of the Wahiawa Historical Society, said Dela Cruz is doing a lot for the town.
“He’s active and energetic, he exhibits openness to ideas,” she said. “He’s audacious … he’s wonderful at getting money.”
The biggest problem now is the lack of social capital, of people who can turn out to push through new initiatives, Ahlo said.
“We’ve got the Ways and Means chairman trying to get things funded, but we need to get people together to jump in,” Ahlo said. “People need to take ownership … I think there’s so much potential for this place.”
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