ALLISON SCHAEFERS / ASCHAEFERS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Pharmacist John Erickson and his partner Craig Midbey recently opened up Puna Pharmacy in the district's tiny mall. The couple are part of a growing boom in gay entrepreneurs and homebuyers in the area. CLICK FOR LARGE
A sense of tolerance
Part of Puna's growth stems from the district's increasing popularity with the gay community
When Denis Fuster was contemplating in 2001 moving to Puna, a rural district on the southeastern side of the Big Island, he took a day trip to see Kilauea volcano, had dinner in Pahoa and than went for an evening dip in the Kapoho tide pools and geothermal ponds.
As he and a same-sex friend swam in the warm waters, someone torched their car. After the firefighters had done their work, the police set up a meeting with the community.
"Everyone was shocked. This was a real standout occurrence," said Fuster, who was so impressed with the community's response to his plight and the wild beauty of Puna that he ended up relocating to the region despite his initial experience.
Today, Fuster sells Puna real estate and specializes in the predominantly gay market, which many say has turned Puna into one of the most popular second-home real estate markets in the United States. While 2000 census data indicated that same-sex couples are more likely to live in major metropolitan areas than rural regions, Puna has become something of a gay enclave. The New York Times has hinted in several articles that the volcanic region is a draw for gay tourists as well as second-home buyers, and the phenomenon has become the most-whispered discussion in real estate circles.
"Five years ago, I would have laughed if you had said that I would become a Realtor in 2005," said Fuster, who hails from France and was once vice president of a high-tech company. "But it's been amazing."
Fuster and the many others like him who cater mainly to the gay real estate market have found plenty to capitalize on in Puna. The district boasts some of the most affordable real estate in Hawaii, and because of restrictions due to active lava flows, it is one of the few places in the islands where paradise hasn't been paved. There's also enough room for gay and lesbian buyers to create a strong community. And then, there is Puna's well-established tolerance.
Puna used to have a Wild West atmosphere, but droves of green, gay and mainland buyers have turned it into a more genteel frontier. Pahoa town boasts gourmet restaurants, and you don't have to travel far to find any of the trappings of the yuppie lifestyle. Interior decorators, therapists, botanical styling products and new-age advisers are plentiful. You can even find a good cup of coffee at the Aloha Outpost Internet Café, just outside of Pahoa town.
Neighborhoods boast rare botanicals, flowing fountains and ornate window treatments. In these neighborhoods -- many of which bear California names -- rather than local style barbecues you are likely to find soirees complete with fine china and crystal. And most of the alcohol is imported.
"Gay guys love to decorate and make things better," Fuster said. "They started Puna's custom-building market."
Signs of gentrification are everywhere in Puna, from the Disneyland-style castle being built near Sea View Estates to the $1 million plus Southeast Asian and modernist architecture emerging in an area once known for hippie busses, beach shacks and tract homes.
Phil Maise, co-owner of Absolute Paradise and a loan officer for Wells Fargo & Co., said he's seen enough growth in gay visitor arrivals and residents to create critical mass in Puna.
"Word is out about Puna and business has been very steady," Maise said. "There's kind of a quantum multiplier effect between tourism and the population. People visit the area and then decide to move here."
Geoff Wing, a gay tourist from California's Bay Area, said he learned about Puna's gay scene from the Internet.
"I didn't know much about Puna's gay scene, but the Internet is a fantastic place," Wing said. "If possible, I prefer to stay in gay-friendly places when I travel."
Wing, who opted to stay at Absolute Paradise, a clothing-optional bed and breakfast during his stay in Puna, said that he plans to return.
"It feels more gay-friendly than San Jose," he said. "There's more acceptance here."
Despite Fuster's early anomaly, members of the gay community have said that they see Puna as a diverse pocket of the Big Island where they are free to be themselves -- a kind of safe haven, if you will.
ALLISON SCHAEFERS / ASCHAEFERS@STARBULLETIN.COM
The increasing population of Puna, driven in part by the district's gay population, has helped transform rural Pahoa from a Wild West town into a trendy night spot. CLICK FOR LARGE
"This is a place where gay people can be affectionate with each other," Fuster said. "I wouldn't hold hands in San Francisco with a partner unless I was on Castro Street, but here I'm comfortable enough."
Others like Rogerio Menescal, 47, and Jeff Seyfried, 55, who live in Puna Beach Palisades, say that Puna embraces diversity.
Though most gay Puna residents, like many island residents, worry about property crime and drug-related issues, they don't fear hate crime, Seyfried said.
"No one here gets wound up enough to go to the effort to hold an anti-gay protest," said Daron Scarborough, 34, who has lived on the Big Island for seven years and just built a custom home in Puna.
A prevention coordinator for the Hawaii Island HIV AIDS Foundation, Scarborough has seen his client load grow along with Puna's population.
"The number of people in the gay community has doubled since I came here seven years ago," he said.
Menescal and Seyfried said they feel comfortable being open in their neighborhood, which the gay community affectionately refers to as the Gayborhood because the subdivision is nearly 60 percent gay. Other subdivisions clustered around the clothing-optional Kehena Beach, such as Kalapana, Kehena Beach Estates, Leilani Estates and Sea View Estates, also have disproportionately large gay populations, Fuster said.
"The beach is a great equalizer," Seyfried said. "This is the one place where even gay men and lesbians mingle -- normally that just doesn't happen."
Like most of Puna's gay arrivals, Menescal and Seyfried said they discovered Puna while on vacation at the Kalani Oceanside Retreat Village, founded by Richard Koob, a gay artist and dancer, and the late Earnest Morgan, who succumbed to AIDS in 1992.
"Kalani is the common link," Seyfried said. "People come to visit and they decide to stay."
John Erickson, owner of Puna Pharmacy, and his 25-year partner Craig Midbey, moved to Puna from a small town in Washington State to join the growing list of new businesses. The couple visited the region during a cruise stopover and felt instantly at home.
"There's a very active gay community here," Midbey said, adding that the pharmacy draws customers from outside that community as well.
While Puna is a difficult adjustment for many, the region is ripe with opportunity for professionals and entrepreneurs, said Tim Ambrose, a 41-year-old psychologist.
"I have a waiting list that would fill my entire week," Ambrose said, adding that he has plans to recruit more professionals to work at the healing center he plans to open.
With Puna's gay population boom has come an increase in artists, theater, music, interior design and landscaping, Scarborough said.
"Puna feels very different than Hilo," he said. "There's a very alternative culture that's thriving here now and I'm thriving in that. We're even starting a men's chorus."
In the 6 1/2 years that Ambrose has lived in Puna, he said that he's seen an increase in the gay population.
"Gay men will move anywhere where there are other gay men; there's a social need," Ambrose said. "They feel comfortable being around each other."
As Puna's population has increased, public safety has improved, said Assistant Chief Paul Ferreira, who works at the administrative bureau of the Hawaii Police Department.
"Back in the 1980s, there were issues with marijuana and other drugs in Puna, and we had high property crime rates because homes were isolated," Ferreira said.
While Puna still struggles with crystal meth, these days traffic is the more usual concern, he said.
"There are a lot of accidents that have been attributed to speeding on our wide-open roads," Ferriera said.
Puna's expanse and rural isolation, which contributed to the tragic 1991 death of Dana Ireland, who was raped and murdered in the district, remain problematic. Ireland, who was critically injured and left for dead by her assailants, died in part because medical help was delayed by Puna's poor infrastructure and difficult communication networks.
Today, Puna's public safety situation has improved. However, there are only 53 sworn police officers covering the district, and the department has four vacancies that it has been unable to fill in the tight labor market, Ferreria said.
While population growth has put a strain on traffic and public safety services, filling neighborhoods with people has cut down on property crime and created community networks, he said.
New businesses have given Puna residents more opportunity to earn legal income and provided an improved quality of life, he said. The weekend swap meet also affords farmers and creative people an opportunity to sell their wares, Ferreira said.
"People are taking more of an interest in their community, and when that happens, it tends to make lifestyles easier," he said.