When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down Hawaii’s tourism industry for much of 2020, it renewed calls to diversify and strengthen Oahu’s economy. Now a Honolulu economic development organization is seeking public input on how to do just that.

The Oahu Economic Development Board, a private nonprofit organization, is seeking community input on a proposed plan it will submit to federal economic development officials. To that end, the organization is hosting a virtual community meeting on Wednesday and is taking public comments via an online form through Sunday.

At stake is federal grant money for economic development for the next five years.

The Oahu Economic Development Board’s mission is to “promote and encourage economic growth, development, and diversification within the City and County of Honolulu and the State of Hawaii,” its federal tax return says.

When the strategy is finalized, the board will submit it to the Federal Economic Development Administration, which will use the plan to guide state and local economic development and recovery programs through 2026. The administration awards grants to “fulfill regional economic development strategies designed to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship, advance regional competitiveness, create higher-skill, living-wage jobs, generate private investment, and fortify and grow industry clusters.”

Sheraton Waikiki with view thru chainlink fence at the lobby area during COVID-19 pandemic. July 23, 2020
The Covid-19 pandemic, which effectively shut down businesses like the Sheraton Waikiki, shown here in July 2020, underscored to many just how dependent Oahu’s economy is on tourism. An island economic development group is seeking public input on an economic strategy for the next five years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The strategy drafted by the board for Oahu, based on a series of community meetings, focuses on Native Hawaiian values such as aloha and ohana.

“Oahu community members overwhelmingly expressed a collective vision for thriving that included a sense of belonging and being able to contribute,” says the first draft of the board’s 2022-2026 Oahu Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.

“Rooted in values of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which are intrinsic in the culture of ALOHA, this strategy belongs to everyone and is for everyone,” the document continues.

The plan says residents made clear a desire to ground Oahu’s economic recovery in “a culture of ALOHA.” It cites a Hawaii law that mandates, “Each person must think and emote good feelings to others.”

Residents “strongly affirmed the guiding values for the Oahu CEDS – the Aloha Spirit values (Akahai, Lokahi, ʻOluʻOlu, Haʻahaʻa, Ahonui as codified in HRS 5-7.5), mālama (to care for), and E ʻOhana Hou (unleashing grace together for eternity) — and identified even more values to guide the future Oahu economy and decision-making.”

In addition to perpetuating Native Hawaiian values, the strategy’s stated priorities are to address Oahu’s high cost of living; balance competing priorities for land use; provide equal access to opportunities for financial security, purpose, and learning; reduce dependence on imports, and increase “island resilience.”

In addition, the strategy says, “Residents identified the need for collaborative, values-based leaders across every sector that put communities at the heart of decision-making and demonstrate a commitment to accountability.”

Economist: Plan’s Stated Goals Are “Not Really Goals”

Not all are convinced the draft provides an effective strategy for growing Oahu’s economy. Steven Bond-Smith, an economist with the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, says community economic development strategies tend to be overly broad rather than targeted and strategic.

“While this might enable flexibility, it means that funding is less likely to be used for a strategic purpose and may instead end up funding a pet project,” he wrote in a recent blog post published by UHERO.

To illustrate the Oahu strategic plan’s broadness, Bond-Smith points to five goals articulated in the strategy. These include goals that all residents are thriving; communities are at the heart of decision-making; there is a recovered aina momona (abundant land) with healthy natural ecosystems; innovation and creativity are a way of life; and Oahu is economically resilient.

“These goals are honorable, but unfortunately they are not clearly measurable,” he wrote. “In that sense, they are not really goals.”

Measurable goals, by contrast, could include specific measures for life-expectancy in all ethnic groups, specific measures of housing affordability and specific measures of innovation in service industries.

“It is critical that the CEDS develops targeted initiatives in the most feasible areas of opportunity to avoid wasting funds on long-shot aspirations or spreading funds too thinly,” he wrote. “Oahu cannot do everything, so should promote activities around its unique strengths.”

Luella Costales, the board’s community and resource strategy manager did not return calls for comment. Bond-Smith also could not be reached.

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