There is no doubt that construction is essential right now. Not only for keeping income flowing into parts of the community, but also to prepare for economic recovery. With over 170,000 of Hawaii’s workers, approximately 25% of the workforce, filing for unemployment, we need to begin to prepare for a catastrophic economic fallout.

Construction is always an appealing way to help the economy to recover, because “shovel-ready” projects can quickly provide income to working-class families. It’s also important to point out that many of these families relying on the income from construction right now are families from less well-off or rural places like Kalihi and Waianae.

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Construction also has a good multiplier rate. One study estimates that for every 100 direct construction jobs created, 226 indirect jobs are supported.

Therefore, it is also important that the state, in its effort to keep construction jobs moving and revenue flowing throughout the local economy, moves forward projects that highlight how construction can benefit the community. This would include infrastructure projects, road repair work and affordable housing, among other options.

Sierra Drive Road construction.
It’s essential to keep key construction projects going to keep some revenue flowing and save jobs. But Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s recent effort to restart work on a controversial ballpark in Waimanalo was a poor decision. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

My company and all our staff are examples of jobs indirectly supported by construction. Our focus these days is on keeping all our staff safe, employed and with full benefits. We know from our clients and colleagues that many businesses are very worried about the current economic forecast and they are doing their best to take care of their employees.

While there is no doubt that the Legislature will have to make some very hard choices in the upcoming months to keep the budget balanced, we should also encourage lawmakers to keep affordable housing, infrastructure and agriculture initiatives on the table. We must continue to support projects and initiatives that are shovel-ready and supportive of a sustainable, green economy.

No Time To Play Politics

This is why Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s decision to move forward with his ball field project at Waimanalo Bay Beach Park a week ago was such a poor decision.

It’s not simply that moving the project forward when there is a stay-at-home order was dangerous, which it was. Spatial distancing guidelines have already required employers and project managers to figure out how to keep projects moving while ensuring worker safety. Worker safety, of course, being the highest priority.

Forcing community members to choose between their First Amendment right to peacefully protest or allow a project that is highly contentious to proceed without opposition was fundamentally irresponsible by the mayor. Community members should never be put in such a quandary. Such a potentially unsafe situation should never have been created.

Days later, Caldwell announced he was shelving the work for now because iwi — in this case, an upper arm bone fragment — was found at the site.

Demonstrators walk in front of the entrance to the Sherwood Forest area of Waimanalo Bay Beach Park. Caldwell reversed course after iwi was found at the site. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Still the mayor, in moving the project forward in this way, had risked generating community opposition against an economic sector that will be essential to Hawaii’s overall recovery.

This was no time to play politics, but Caldwell has eagerly seized upon every political opportunity this crisis has afforded him.

Proceed With Caution

Even under ideal circumstances, the visitor industry will remain crippled for the indefinite future. It will be many months before visitors may be interested in traveling again, and in turn, we should expect jobs within the visitor industry to rebound very slowly.

Conversely, industries like agriculture, construction, utilities and health care will continue or can ramp up quickly once the crisis has passed. It will be essential to support these industries and their workforces.

Yet, government needs to proceed with caution. To try to push controversial projects through when the community is fragile and hurting will backfire. Hawaii needs its leaders to bring communities together, not drive them apart.

The hope is that the government will not use Hawaii’s hardship opportunistically. Projects like TMT or Waimanalo should be completely off the table right now.

To force people to choose between their values and their health is completely depraved, and it’s not how good government should behave.

Once the imminent danger of COVID-19 passes, there will be a push to expedite projects, and we should absolutely do this. The economic well-being and health of the residents will depend on government’s ability to get projects moving quickly once the health threat has waned. We need to get people working. We need income flowing into communities and families.

Gov. David Ige and the four mayors should use their executive authority to streamline and expedite permitting processes, but this should not be used as an opportunity to circumvent transparency and compliance. If anything, we should be ever more vigilant to move forward in a manner that embraces Hawaii’s commitment to the environment, sustainability, and culture.

The weeks ahead are going to surely be very hard. Bank accounts will start to dwindle to zero. Forget bills — people will need money to pay for food and medicine. People will urgently need unemployment income or benefits so they can attend to their most basic needs. People are scared.

That’s going to get worse.

The last thing anyone needs right now is conflict. What is needed is compassion and competence. There is a tremendous amount of this emerging from the community, and the hope is that government leaders will continue to embrace and support these efforts. There’s still lots of time and opportunity to emerge from this crisis as a strong, resilient community.

A strong economy and strong conservation ethic are not mutually exclusive. It is not only possible to have a sustainable, thriving economy that supports livable wages, it is a necessity if we are to realize the island community we seem to collectively aspire to be.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.