Molokai Ranch closure leaves bleak prospects
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By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Andrew Gomes
MAUNALOA, Moloka'i — Jerry Flowers started a new job two weeks ago washing rental cars on Moloka'i, and his timing was fortunate: He said a half-dozen others yesterday inquired about joining him at Budget Rent A Car in what portends to be a big jobless wave rising up to break over the small Island.
The surge in job seekers was triggered Monday when Molokai Ranch said it would lay off more than 120, representing nearly the entire labor force of the island's largest private employer.
"Plenty people looking for jobs," said the 23-year-old Flowers, a Big Island native who moved to Moloka'i to live with his grandmother. "It's going to be drastic. It's a small island — that's why."
Many Molokai Ranch employees — from ranch hands to movie theater ticket takers and hotel maids to water utility crews — struggled yesterday to size up their job prospects as the owner of 35 percent of the island winds down its business operations in the next 60 days.
But on Hawai'i's most economically depressed Neighbor Island where unemployment is more than double the state average, hopes of eking out a decent living are bleak.
"I can't even think about what's next," said Nani Suyat, a restaurant waitress at the upscale 22-room Molokai Lodge who was born and raised on the island and has worked for the ranch for a decade. "I don't know right now. It happened so suddenly."
A day after Molokai Ranch's decision, some employees lashed out at Moloka'i preservationists they blame for the impending shutdown. Molokai Ranch said it was closing because of years-long opposition to its residential development plan for La'au Point.
Emotions surrounding the development issue, which previously had been somewhat muted in the tight-knit community, frayed yesterday partly from frustration over workers facing the loss of their livelihood.
Now much of the focus is finding work for Molokai Ranch employees faced with options that are largely limited to commuting to work on nearby Maui, moving off the island, competing for one of the relative few available jobs on Moloka'i or collecting welfare.
Just a handful of ranch employees will hold on to their jobs as part of a skeleton crew needed to "mothball" company assets that include the lodge, Kaluakoi Golf Course, 40-unit Kaupoa Beach Village and the Maunaloa triplex movie theater.
Molokai Ranch ordered the shutdown after failing to win enough support for a controversial master plan to develop 200 lots for luxury oceanfront homes at La'au that would help finance other ranch business investments that the company said loses a few million dollars annually.
According to the ranch's Singapore-based parent company GuocoLeisure Ltd., Molokai Ranch had positive cash flow last year by selling land, but GuocoLeisure's board told Molokai Ranch to cease operating.
GuocoLeisure added that the shutdown isn't expected to have any significant financial impact on GuocoLeisure, a publicly traded company that reported a $12.6 million net profit last year on revenue of $422 million and is headed by Malaysian billionaire Quek Leng Chan.
Clyde Len Wai, 44, a service technician at the golf course who graduated from Moloka'i High School, said the move by the ranch will deeply hurt many employees economically and emotionally.
"Just to have this happen to the people — it's really shameful," he said. "It's like pulling a rug from under your feet. We were like a family down here."
Len Wai has medical coverage for himself, his wife and three children supplied by Molokai Ranch. His nephew, Kalena, 25, also works on the golf maintenance crew. In 60 days, Len Wai said Molokai Ranch will take applications from the maintenance staff of five, which is already down from 16, to fill one position to keep course vegetation on life support.
Len Wai said he isn't sure what he'll do if he doesn't keep his job, but he will survive. "I'm not afraid to fall, because I'll just stand up," he said. "Life goes on."
Karen Holt, executive director of Moloka'i Community Service Council and a vocal opponent of the La'au plan, said many people underestimate the resiliency of Moloka'i residents to survive economic hardships like the ranch shutdown.
"This island has recovered from much bigger economic reversals," she said, noting the shutdown of pineapple grower Del Monte in the early 1980s.
The unemployment rate on the island last year was 6.2 percent, up from 5.2 percent rate that was the lowest in more than a decade. By comparison though, Moloka'i's unemployment rate has been more than 15 percent at times, including years in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Adding 120 to the unemployment roll would boost unemployment to around 12 percent.
Holt also notes that Moloka'i has Hawai'i's highest rate of residents — estimated at 30 percent — who rely at least in part on subsistence practices to feed themselves through farming, fishing and hunting.
But some Native Hawaiian Molokai Ranch workers to be laid off said subsistence is not a viable way of life for them.
"You tell me, if no more employment if everybody going live on deer and fish? ... Never happen," said one Molokai Ranch worker who asked not to be identified because he is angry with La'au opponents and doesn't want to make life more difficult for himself. "Deer meat, 'opihi not going pay my mortgage."
'WHAT'S THEIR PLAN?'
A woman ranch employee who also asked to remain anonymous for similar reasons said leaders of the charge against developing La'au, including Holt and Moloka'i hunter and Hawaiian homesteader Walter Ritte Jr., need to help ranch employees.
"What's their plan?" she said, shedding tears. "We're devastated. I got no where else to go."
Ritte, who sympathizes with residents losing jobs, said Molokai Ranch is giving up on its La'au plan and its closing will allow investors to buy the ranch property with a business plan that is more acceptable to the larger community.
"What is acceptable? That's a dialogue that we never had with (Molokai Ranch)," Ritte said.
Late last year, Moloka'i Community Service Council received a $50 million pledge from UPC Wind, a Massachusetts-based firm interested in building a wind power farm on the island, toward acquiring Moloka'i Ranch's 64,000 acres that the nonprofit estimates is worth $200 million.
Ritte said he expects more offers that present employment opportunities will be made and allow the community to heal.
Wayde Lee, a fourth-generation Hawaiian homesteader who counsels adolescents with substance-abuse problems and grows taro for a living, said the main issue for opposing La'au was the availability of water.
Some farmers and scientists fear water demand for La'au would harm the ecosystem and reduce available water for Department of Hawaiian Home Lands projects and other needs.
"It's the wrong place to take water," said Lee, who used to operate an alfalfa farm. "The (Molokai Ranch) workers — I feel sorry for them."
Jimmy Duvauchelle, a fourth-generation Molokai Ranch cowboy who manages ranch livestock, said the unwillingness of La'au opponents to work toward a compromise has done more damage to the fabric of Moloka'i than if the development plan were accepted.
Under the La'au plan, the ranch was to convey 50,000 acres to a community land trust for management and protection using income from leases on the land and a cut of house lot sales. Molokai Ranch also said it would refurbish and reopen the shuttered Kaluakoi Hotel.
Duvauchelle said he has been allowed to buy the ranch's 800 to 900 animals, including 500 cattle, and continue ranching with a small fraction of employees — maybe six or seven people. But others will have to consider leaving the island to find work.
"I understand the mana'o (the idea) keep Moloka'i, Moloka'i, but without her people Moloka'i is not what it is," he said. "Moloka'i was built by generations of people and we are part of that. This is a heavy blow for Moloka'i, not just for Molokai Ranch."
Duvauchelle, 64, said he is glad to continue what he has been doing all his adult life. But others aren't sure what they will do.
'A TOUGH TWO WEEKS'
Mike Jennings, 62, moved from Iowa to Moloka'i with his wife, Merline, three years ago after visiting the island with friends. "We came and we fell in love with it," he said. "We fell in love with the serenity. It was like the Lord sent us here."
After stints as a home caretaker and Molokai Lodge bartender, the former cement company manager and occasional golf instructor from Des Moines landed a job as the pro shop manager at the Kaluakoi Golf Course.
Jennings said that, though his time on the island has been short, his three pro shop employees are like family, as are many visitors that he has seen every year.
"We have become one big 'ohana," he said, welling up at the thought of severing customer and employee ties. "It'll be a tough two weeks."
The planned closure has led some longtime Moloka'i visitors like retiree Gary Bates from Seattle to cancel future trips.
Bates, 70, said he has visited Moloka'i every year since 1985. On this year's trip, he has spent five weeks on the island and estimates that excluding hotel and car expenses he and his wife easily spent $1,500 on groceries, gas, recreation and gifts.
"I don't know what they will do to replace that income," he said. "This will be our last trip. We won't come back to Moloka'i, pure and simple."
Such a ripple effect from lost tourism and income for residents reduces spending around the island, which in turn could result in more job losses. And that would mean fewer employees needed at places like Budget Rent A Car.
Reach Andrew Gomes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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