Monday, February 1, 1999

looks to export

A summit starting today
will explore possibilities in
Asia-Pacific nations

By Lori Tighe


To move on foot in Bangkok, Richard Fassler took a deep breath in his hotel and held it. He ran down the street and ducked into an air-conditioned restaurant to exhale. He repeated this from restaurant to restaurant until he reached his destination.

"I was horrified at how polluted it is. The acrid air had a sweet, sulfureous quality that stung your eyes," said Fassler, economic specialist with Hawaii's Department of Business and Economic Development. But he saw opportunity.

Asia-Pacific countries have the pollution - and Hawaii has the technology to clean it up and prevent it, Fassler said.

Hawaii's cultural ties, strict permitting, location and talent pool position it as a leader to provide the expertise needed to help Asia-Pacific, environmental experts here agree.

Mayor Jeremy Harris also sees the opportunity, which prompted the first Mayor's Asia-Pacific Environmental Summit today through Wednesday at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

"We hope to be a place they turn to for our environmental technologies and multicultural community," Harris said.

Three hundred delegates, including political and private industry leaders, are expected from 25 countries including the Asia-Pacific region, Canada, Australia and the United States.

"We want to get them all together to face the magnitude of the situation in Asia-Pacific, to demonstrate solutions and to tell them we hold the cards to many of the answers," Harris said.

Exporting the state's environmental technology is not new. Hawaii firms such as Lyon Associates and Belt Collins Hawaii have successfully done environmental work in Asia since the 1960s.

"Our traditional ties with Asia, knowing their cultural and business practices can be an advantage for us," said Anne Mapes, president of Belt Collins Hawaii, an engineering firm that does landscape and golf course design, as well as environmental impact statements, surveys, and wastewater facility designs.

Hawaii also has developed strict permits to protect its environment, known worldwide for its high quality, Fassler said.

"We are not a loose state by any means in permitting. We've had to be extremely cautious about our pristine environment and rightly so," he said. Yet ironically Hawaii's gorgeous environment has posed an obstacle to marketing its expertise, said Craig MacDonald, ocean resources development manager for the Department of Business and Economic Development.

"Hawaii's professional capabilities were being hurt by our sand and sun marketing," MacDonald said. "We've been sold as a place to go to for fun, not serious business."

"We've been marketing Hawaii as a superlative site with national advantages for ocean development with the capacity to do the work," MacDonald said. "It's been extremely successful. We've had a steep hill to climb, but we've seen a change."

Hawaii's location, midway between the mainland United States and Asia, is an advantage.

"We're strategically located to serve with American expertise," said Charles Wallace, principal of Wimberly, Allison, Tong and Goo, a resort developer emphasizing environmentally conscious design.

"We're doing quite well compared to U.S. firms because we're closer to Asia," Wallace said.

Hawaii can offer Asian-Pacific countries the benefit of already going through the learning curve as a tropical island state, said David Bills, president of Consulting Engineers Council of Hawaii.

The association represents 84 engineering firms and 1,200 people in Hawaii. About 25 percent of the firms do strictly environmental work, and almost all firms do some, Bills said.

"One of the biggest keys to this is we're an industrial leader in the world and we've developed a lot of the technologies. We're an island environment and in the Pacific you're looking at a lot of solid-waste handling, landfill, hazardous waste, and waste-water treatment issues," said Bills, a civil engineer at Gray, Hong, Bills and Associates.

Vietnam, for example, has heavily promoted tourism, "but they're forgetting to put their sewers in," he said.

Although business has dropped in the last 18 months because of the Asian economic crisis, Hawaii firms see bigger opportunities in developing countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. "As they develop, there are more environmental problems," said Mapes of Belt Collins and Associates.

Lyon Associates, which does 70 percent of its business in Asia-Pacific, also has seen business decrease in Japan and Korea as they invest in their own environmental expertise.

"The opportunity lies more in developing countries," said Stephen Cheney, vice president. "In many ways they're letting themselves go as the United States did for years and years and years. They're not as environmentally advanced yet."

Identifying the client in often unstable countries is the new challenge, said Soren Knudsen, senior engineer at Dawson Environmental Services Inc., a small environmental firm. "Is it the government? Is it a corporation working overseas? At what level the technology transfer takes place clearly depends on where the critical need is at the time," Knudsen said.

"Hawaii can definitely be a leader, since we have all the right ingredients. The next few years will tell."

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