Can a green economy put Maui's builders back to work?
March 05, 2009For far too long, Maui's builders have suckled at the teat of luxury development. Now, as our economy sits stagnant and new building grinds to a screeching halt, scores of the county's carpenters find themselves on the sidelines, praying for the economy to turn around and building to resume. But is renewed development the only solution?
New housing starts have plummeted nationwide since the recession began to take hold last year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 466,000 new homes were started this January. That's 16.8 percent below December's numbers and a staggering 57 percent lower than last January's totals. No one on Maui has felt this decline more than the carpenters union.
According to William Kamai, senior service representative for the Maui chapter of the local 745 Hawaii carpenters union, over one-third of Maui's carpenters are out of work.
"Of roughly 700 members, 240 are currently on the bench," says Kamai. "Business has dried up so much for everyone. It's scary."
Kamai says the union is hurting statewide, but nowhere more than on the Big Island where nearly 50 percent of its members are unemployed. Since summer, work has steadily declined for Maui's builders and the outlook for the immediate future isn't exactly rosy.
"It's looking very grim for 2009," says Kamai. "We're hoping the Makena project gets approved."
The state is also pinning its hopes on large construction projects to get people back to work. Ryan Markham of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations thinks Gov. Lingle has a plan.
"As far as the outlook for carpenters being grim in 2009, I think there is hope on the horizon with the possible rail being built on Oahu," says Markham. "That and the governor's five-point plan for economic action that includes $1.89 billion in capital improvement projects—there will probably be plenty of work for local carpenters."
That's an awfully big "probably" for unemployed tradesmen, not to mention the rail issue is anything but a done deal. However, if Lingle goes after it with half the gusto she did with the Superferry, there's little doubt it'll be bulldozed through. But to Maui's conservationists, it's this reliance on development and giant public works projects that have us in this predicament in the first place.
"Land is a finite resource," says Angie Hofmann, community organizer for Save Makena. "This old model of doing things is unsustainable."
Hofmann says that many times, the larger developers bring in out-of-state workers and while they say they're creating local jobs, many of the specialized positions are outsourced. Hofmann also says that the existing workforce on Maui would do well to adapt to the growing "green economy."
Alex de Roode, director of the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui (SLIM), agrees. His office—an independent nonprofit created through a partnership with Maui Land & Pineapple, Maui Community College and EARTH University of Costa Rica—has been charged with bringing the idea of a green economy on Maui to life.
"We're seeing significant efforts on the part of the county and local volunteers," says de Roode. "We're working with people from the hotel industry, local schools and labor unions to publish a comprehensive action plan."
The plan should be made public in time for next spring's county energy expo, de Roode says, and will include provisions for everything from more efficient county facilities to green workforce development. De Roode thinks that could be the kick-start local builders need.
De Roode believes that "if we can tweak their skill sets just a little bit," Maui's workers can help usher in a new era of green building and sustainability.
So, with a little cooperation, a little re-education and a lot of hard work on everyone's part, Maui's workforce and economy could be revived and re-energized, without having to sacrifice our most sacred and beautiful natural treasures. Could this really be the dawning of a new era? Is this really change we can believe in? That remains to be seen. MTW
For more information on the Sustainable Living Institute, visit sustainablemaui.org
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