North Kona:
Bustling or 'down on its knees'?

By Rod Thompson

KAILUA-KONA - Is North Kona a "boom town"? Money magazine says so, but even residents who agree say, "Yes, but ... "

"We're growing; you can see it and feel it," said Kona Councilman Jim Rath.

But that's after Rath put out a report a few years ago saying the best businesses could hope for was to "survive till '95." Even 1995 didn't mark growth, he said. "We'd just stopped going down."

The population has undeniably boomed - from 5,154 in 1970 to 20,781 in 1990, and an estimated 25,000 in 1994, according to the Chamber of Commerce. If Kona is growing again, it's because of small businesses, not investments in resorts and the like, Rath said.

But small business owner Otis "Skip" Warren doesn't see prosperity. Warren, a carpenter by trade, opened the Marco Polo Tea and Spice Co. after an injury ended his nail-pounding days. "Kona has been down on its knees for the last couple of years," Warren said.

Joe Rosner, who makes barrels and water tanks, doesn't see a boom either. "I don't see how anybody could possibly say that," he said. "In the past, I didn't pursue work. I didn't have to. Now I pursue work and I've taken on another job."

At the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, executive Marnie Herkes said, "Things are starting to move. Things are starting to build."

Herkes pointed to two new streets, a new sewer line, a new Kmart, Wal-Mart and the only resort (Four Seasons) under construction in the state. Others point to a finished Costco store and a Denny's restaurant to be built.

That construction boom has bypassed Oshima Bros. general store, six miles south of Kailua-Kona in Kainaliu. "We're kind of holding up even with the big stores here," said part-owner Stanley Oshima.

At KTA Super Stores, President Barry Taniguchi said, "I can't see the potential for job growth in that area."

One reason Money says the area is booming is median income there is $35,364 annually, 23 percent above the national average.

People have to struggle to earn it, though. "I'm the only person I know who doesn't have two jobs," Herkes said.

Kona's other councilman, Keola Childs, said the area is a "cyclical boom town." "We tend to get two to three good years out of every decade," he said.

Even Mark Richards, who developed the sites for Wal-Marts in Hilo and Kona, sees no boom.

"I don't think that's around the corner."

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