The program would distribute grants of $10,000 to $20,000 as a lifeline to struggling Lahaina business owners.

Lahaina business owners were presented with a tentative plan Tuesday for a $25 million fund to provide cash grants to help them survive the aftermath of the devastating Aug. 8 fire.

Gov. Josh Green said he is eying October for a possible limited or “soft” reopening of West Maui to visitors.

Green described both proposals in an interview Tuesday after attending a private meeting between Lahaina business owners, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen and state lawmakers at the Ritz-Carlton Maui, Kapalua. About 100 to 150 people — mostly business owners — attended, Green said.

“The tone of the meeting was one of great need,” Green said. “They needed answers and they wanted to find out what was possible to help them through this part of the crisis.”

A barricade is placed around a drain in Lahaina, Maui
Barricades surround stormwater drainage areas in the disaster zone in Lahaina. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The proposed relief fund for the businesses would cost on the order of $25 million, Green said, with the state contributing $10 million and the county providing another $5 million. The balance would come from the Maui Strong Fund administered by Hawaii Community Foundation.

The money would be used to make $10,000 payments to small businesses and $20,000 to larger companies to help them cover expenses such as employee costs and lease payments, Green said.

Green said he has the discretion to use available federal or state funding or both to pay the state’s share, but has asked for a meeting with House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi Wednesday morning to get them to sign off on the idea.

“I am prepared to do this immediately even if we can’t find consensus, but I would like to build consensus because I can tell that they really want to try to stay alive until we can open up West Maui,” Green said of the business owners.

Green said the closed-door meeting also featured a passionate discussion “about when we reopen West Maui.”

“We’re trying to find a balance between giving West Maui time to grieve, and saving the economy on Maui. And so my current inclinations is to — with more input — open West Maui to kamaaina as early as October, and to follow that with a more broad opening four to six weeks later,” Green said.

He added: “But those details still have to be discussed with the community.”

Green said 80% of the staff at the Kaanapali resorts in West Maui “have been suggesting they want to be back at work so they can survive, but we’re very sensitive to where people are in the cycle of grieving the loss of their homes or friends or family.”

“It’s a very delicate question, but if we don’t act, we do worry that lots of people could go bankrupt and be forced to leave Maui, and that won’t be good for anyone,” Green said.

Green said the “broad consensus” in the room Tuesday was that the business owners would like to open immediately, even as early as Oct. 1. Others in the room including some Maui County Council members “were a little bit more concerned about opening too soon.”

But Green said he learned from the tourism shutdown during the pandemic that “you have to pick a date and stick to it” because uncertainty causes economic damage.

“We don’t want to be uncertain, so we’re just going to have to make our best decision and reopen so that we can also support local people,” he said.

Green said his own preference would be to reopen West Maui to kamaaina visitors on Oct. 1, and to other visitors on Nov. 15 or Dec. 1, depending on the availability of hotel rooms.

One of the many major tasks that lie ahead is the need to move about 6,000 people out of Maui hotel rooms and into longer term rentals in the next two to four weeks, Green said.

The state is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a two-week extension on the housing support it has provided to help those people, which currently lasts until Sept. 16. “We very badly need that. That will give us until Oct. 1.”

Green said the two-hour meeting Tuesday featured discussions of unemployment benefits, insurance, and questions surrounding when the Lahaina Harbor will reopen.

The Lahaina Public Library after the fires, Monday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The Lahaina Public Library after the fires. Gov. Josh Green would like to see local residents be able to return to Lahaina as soon as Oct. 1 (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The meeting was sponsored by the LahainaTown Action Committee, a business association, and some observers were concerned that the meeting was closed to the general public.

That included House Speaker Scott Saiki, who said in a written statement that “we need to lead a community recovery, not a stakeholder recovery.”

Saiki circulated a memo about the meeting to fellow lawmakers on Sunday warning that a private meeting between businesses and influential political figures “may send a message that one interest is being favored over another at this time, or, even worse, that the community is identified as the opposition.”

“The Lahaina community remains in a state of shock, but has been consistent in its request for inclusion before decisions concerning its future are made,” he wrote.

Saiki said Tuesday he watched portions of the meeting online, but declined to discuss his concerns publicly.

Civil Beat asked Green and some members of the Legislature Tuesday morning to be provided online access to the meeting, but was not allowed to attend.

Senate President Ron Kouchi and Maui Sen. Lynn DeCoite both attended the meeting in person, and both said the decision to call the meeting was made by the LahainaTown Action Committee.

Snehal Patel, president of the committee, said Tuesday the gathering was designed to address the specific concerns of the Lahaina business community. The organization drafted a list of questions from its members, and DeCoite invited various government leaders to attend.

“Our main focus was really those that were impacted a devastated by the fire that happened … That was our intention, to organize and put together a meeting that would help those businesses make critical and important decisions on what their next steps were,” Patel said.

The organization waited for “quite some time” after the fire to call the meeting “because we wanted to be sensitive to the loss or property, the loss of life, and just overall devastation and the impact that that had emotionally on the overall broad community.”

The businesses are part of the community, and some members lost their businesses, homes and loved ones on Aug. 8, he said.

Patel said he hopes the meeting will help open the way for other communities to ask for similar meetings and get similar access to government leaders, “because they should be able to.”

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

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