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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 1, 2002

No-fuss Hilo moving along with purpose

By John Griffin

It's a good omen when you arrive at midday and get sunburned walking around downtown Hilo.

The 2002 State Canoe Racing Championship was held at Hilo Bay where cruise ships dock, bringing 220,000 visitors a year.

Advertiser library photo • Aug. 3, 2002

Sure, East Hawai'i has its problems. Those include crime, drugs, differences with more conservative yet gung-ho West Hawai'i, and issues such as additional astronomical development atop Mauna Kea, a sacred place for Hawaiians. Some people mentioned a drought, although the countryside looks greener than O'ahu and we saw enough of the traditional rain.

Everything considered, the overall feeling was upbeat during a three-day visit around this southeast corner of the Big Island. Hilo has always been a favorite, a soggier more rural version of my Kaimuki homeland.

The trip's central purpose was a journalism seminar for college and high school editors from around the islands. It was held in the new classroom building at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo, an increasingly impressive place these days. I'll get to that later.

At the same time, we got a chance to drive around and talk with folks about such matters as politics and the economy.

Amid the Linda-Mazie postmortems, two names were mentioned most — Harry and Rose.

The first, of course, is Mayor Harry Kim who, I was told, continues to govern quietly with much of his landslide-election popularity. He's a nominal Republican with many Green-like views.

The big question is whether he will follow his original one-term statements or run for re-election in two years and thus put all kinds of aspiring politicos on hold. The mayor now says he's undecided. Some feel that, if Kim doesn't run, his most likely heir could be his soft-spoken chief of staff, Andy Levin, a liberal Democrat and former state senator.

The economy was summed up as "treading water" by this year's First Hawaiian Bank forecast, which went on: "For both sides of Hawai'i County, the near-term economic outlook appears to be like the trusty family car: solid and dependable, but with no 'pizzazz' and the chance of an occasional sputter."

Still, within that framework are positive developments and admirable efforts.

Most visibly, cruise ships now dock in Hilo two or three times a week, bringing more than 220,000 passengers this year to explore

the charms of East Hawai'i for a day. Many just go up to Volcanoes National Park, which with lava flowing is an increasingly popular attraction these days. At the same time, some drift to sample the shops of old downtown Hilo.

Paula Helfrich, the energetic president of the Hawai'i Island Economic Development Board, outlines a variety of activities that contribute to the island's changing mosaic.

Some important construction projects are taking shape, including the new Kamehameha School and the long-awaited redevelopment of the Saddle Road, which will speed contact between East and West Hawai'i. Good news for the almost 150,000 residents and 1.2 million tourists who visit each year.

Agriculture in all its growing, processing and marketing aspects may employ more than 20,000 people in a Big Island employment base of 70,000. Often this is in small operations that add a changing character to the old plantation landscape.

Helfrich also mentions new non-Kona coffee growing in East Hawai'i, expanding dairies that are producing fancy cheese, other gourmet food programs, hula camps that cater to Japanese visitors, and Hawaiian music recording facilities that are high tech and part of a $27 million industry in our Islands. More than 120 farms and ranches added income or exposure with agricultural tourism or "Agritourism" that welcomes visitors.

The self-guided "Heritage" route along the Hamakua Coast from Hilo to Honoka'a gives both Hawai'i folks and tourists a close-up feel for the fading old sugar plantation culture and new forms of diversified agriculture.

The economic development board has also produced a driver's guide and sign markers for a two-pronged "Volcano-Heritage Corridor." We drove parts of this, one up to the national park area, the other from Kea'au down to Kalapana and back along the coast of Puna with its beauty and "Wild West" feeling. Helfrich calls the Puna part "tourism with an edge."

Still the most promising engine for economic (as well as intellectual) development is the growing University of Hawai'i-Hilo. And there you meet Taiwan-raised Rose Tseng, who has been its chancellor since 1998.

Operating within tight

UH budgets, Rose, as everybody calls her, has in her four years produced growth and expansion to impressive degree. The student body (some 70 percent from Hawai'i, the rest from 48 states and 40 foreign countries) has grown from 2,400 to 3,065, toward a goal of topping 5,000.

Course offerings and degree programs in UHH's four colleges have expanded. Grants have helped it grow to a $40 million

annual operation. Tseng estimates that, adding in wages and student spending, UHH brings $130 million a year into the local economy. The university is the island's biggest employer.

Moreover, the popular Hilo chancellor outlines plans and goals that should make big-thinking President Evan Dobelle smile. Those include more expansion in the already-impressive science and technology park adjoining the Hilo campus, new outreach facilities around the Big Island, even more local cooperation ("We are community driven"), more use of the Big Island's abundant natural resources as "a living laboratory," being a leader in Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific cultural studies, enriched campus life and more dorms to enhance its claim as the "premier residential university in Hawai'i." And more.

It's all there in a UHH Strategic Plan already moving ahead on multiple fronts.

If UH-Manoa aspires to be like Berkeley (where she got her doctorate in nutrition) as a top research institution, Tseng sees UH-Hilo as akin to a California state university, such as San Jose where she was dean of a college.

Finally, it isn't apparent to everyone on the Big Island, much less elsewhere, but Hilo, once our biggest plantation-oriented community, has with its almost 50,000 souls become ever more a college town with the diverse new horizons that entails.

And, no, I don't think that unexpected sunshine went to my head.

John Griffin, former editor of The Advertiser's editorial pages, is a frequent contributor.