The numbers are staggering: a third of our workforce unemployed, 30,000 residents projected to leave the State and a 5 year projection on recovery of tourism. What can we do? What role will the City Government play in this process? What will our island home look like 5 years from today?
First and foremost we need to recognize there will be hardship, there will be suffering and we need to come together and help each other. Secondly, we need to recognize there is no single answer to this tremendous challenge we face. Some are saying now is the time to pivot from tourism. Others are saying we must bring the tourists back as soon as we can. These are not contradictory arguments, they are complimentary. While there have been attempts in the past to diversify our economy that have not yielded much, we are faced with a completely different situation now. The old saying that “Necessity is the mother of invention” applies here. Rather than have government dictate the path of diversification, we need our creative entrepreneurs to step forward and lead the way. Government can enable and support this via incubator-type projects that create opportunities, but a top down approach would be a mistake.
We need to reopen tourism in a safe and swift manner. Much of this falls to the State, but we need to be vigilant of their progress and ready to step in where they fall short. We need to be creative in ways we help businesses deal with a post-Covid world. The expansion of restaurant service onto sidewalks and outdoor public space is a good start. We also need to streamline our government operations to prevent costly delays in reopening or opening businesses. For example, building permits languishing for 6 months to a year must stop. Finally, we need to recognize some of the positive outcomes the lack of tourists has provided for our local families and our environment. We need to focus on ways to carry some of those positives into our reopened economy.
Even with all of the above this simply isn’t enough. Tourists won’t be returning to pre-Covid levels for years. Diversification by itself can not make up the shortfall. The City needs to expand its CIP expenditures while also working on retraining workers. Priority should be given to infrastructure investment along the rail line to support future affordable housing. Yet there are also opportunities to better our quality of life that are not as planning intensive and that can be implemented now. For example, tree planting is an important step City’s can take to combat climate change. We should immediately embark on an extensive tree planting project island wide. As another example, our current public hurricane shelters are few and in poor shape to withstand a direct hit from a major hurricane. We should immediately work on hardening community recreation centers for this eventual natural disaster.
I believe that with proper leadership we can rise to meet the challenge of these times. The road will be hard and at times dark, but we can emerge the better for this trial. The people of Oahu have the capacity to accomplish these goals if we work together.