Maui Mayor Michael Victorino vowed to tackle a number of the county’s most pressing challenges during the final year of his first term, promising Wednesday evening in his State of the County address that he’d focus on economic diversification, protecting the county against climate change and ramping up the construction of housing for working families.

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Victorino outlined his priorities for the next year in a virtual address that included a mix of pre-recorded videos and speeches from himself and other county leaders. He discussed how the county could look ahead after the pandemic and move beyond the economic devastation that ensued, when Maui’s unemployment rate soared to 35% — one of the highest rates in the U.S.

“We are survivors,” Victorino said, speaking from the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. “Together, we have survived the worst public health and economic crisis in our lifetime.”

The pandemic laid bare just how dependent Maui is on tourism, and Victorino underscored that there’s a lot of work to be done to make Maui’s economy more sustainable. He called the tourism industry the island’s “golden goose,” saying that the county has long put too many of its eggs in the same basket.

Looking forward, he said, the county is working to bolster other industries in a number of ways, including by supporting training programs for health care workers, promoting Maui’s wellness industry and looking for ways to better assist local entrepreneurs.

“Maui Nui is a community first — a visitors’ destination second,” the mayor said. “It’s time to restore that balance.”

As the community as a whole has reckoned with how to tackle tourism’s cost on residents’ quality of life and neighborhoods, Victorino touted the county’s partnership with websites like Expedia and Airbnb that directs those sites to take down illegal listings; for example, Airbnb recently removed 1,300 unlicensed listings on Maui. The mayor vowed to continue tracking down vacation rental operators who “ignore the law and punish them.”

 

Since the pandemic struck, it’s become even harder to make ends meet on Maui, a community that was already unaffordable for many working families. For years, the number of houses built on Maui hasn’t kept up with demand and now the median home price stands above $1 million — a situation that Victorino blamed on a complicated mix of things, including rising costs of building materials, zoning restrictions and the lack of roads, sewer lines and water to serve new developments.

The mayor said his administration is committed to working with the County Council to hasten the construction of new homes, adding that it’s time for the county to “reassume its kuleana for building infrastructure.”

“With billions of federal infrastructure dollars on their way, we have a rare opportunity to build the infrastructure we need to expedite home construction for our working families,” he said.

A photo of the new Honoapiilani Highway next to the old highway
The new Honoapiilani Highway, left, next to the old highway. The new highway was moved inland to connect to the Lahaina bypass. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

As the county faces the mounting threats from climate change, Victorino underscored the importance of protecting Maui’s natural resources and looking for ways to shore up communities that are vulnerable to threats like flooding and sea level rise. In 2020, the county sued fossil fuel companies to hold them responsible for climate change and has also taken other smaller steps that are within local leaders’ control — like requiring reef-safe sunscreen and banning plastic bags, single-use plastic and Styrofoam containers.

Meanwhile, with its portion of the $2.8 billion that Hawaii is set to receive from the federal government’s infrastructure bill, Victorino said the county will be able to take “giant steps” to realize critical projects, including upgrading water systems; improving public transportation by electrifying the Maui Bus fleet; moving parts of Honoapiilani Highway inland and out of the way from sea-level rise; and expanding broadband to rural communities like Hana, Lanai and Molokai.

“These projects will generate construction jobs that pay high wages, boost our local economy, improve quality of life and help us protect the environment,” he said.

Earlier this year, Victorino announced that he’s running for a second term as Maui’s mayor. The race is already shaping to be a competitive one: The mayor is facing five challengers, according to state records. The Maui residents vying to unseat him include Council member Mike Molina, retired 2nd Circuit Chief Judge Richard Bissen, tour operator Alec Hawley, author Alana Kay and Jonah Lion of Makawao.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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