Rebuilding Lahaina

The people of Maui can speak for themselves. All I can offer are a few observations I hope might inform mainland readers interested in knowing a little more about the historically important town, Lahaina.

I used to affectionately joke about Lahaina being an authentic tourist trap. It was a favored retreat for Maui royalty in days preceding the unified monarchy. Kamehameha I made it his capital for a time, and it remained a favored royal playgound for generations.  European whalers discovered it as the best layover spot for R&R while re-provisioning.  They were a rowdy bunch so there was a jail in the basement of the Courthouse and an open air prison on Prison Street.   It was the center of life for West Maui residents working for pineapple and sugar companies.  Cattle were brought to the Mala Wharf for export to other places. Hawaii’s first printing press was born in Lahaina in 1834 at Hale Pa’i where it produced the first newspaper to be published west of the Rockies.

American tourists started showing up as soon as 1860 when scheduled steamship travel was begun.  WWII converted Maui into one enormous military base with Lahaina fulfilling its role as a place to relax amidst the bustle of pineapple canning and local commerce.  The tourist flood was unleashed with the Boeing 707 and the development of nearby Ka’anapali as a destination area. Through it all Lahaina retained its small town ambience and home for ordinary working people. 

Lahaina cannot be rebuilt the way it was. The question is can it be rebuilt for the people who lived there? As popular as it was as a tourist attraction it had greater value as a place of historical and cultural importance. Its roughly 13,000 residents were mostly lower middle class and what some call the working poor. Part of the commercial center was oriented to tourists and other parts to the needs of ordinary daily life. Even its few hotels and guest houses were, by Maui standards, on the less expensive side, the Pioneer Inn an exception.  As for me, I’m a seasonal visitor with a forty year love affair with Lahaina and its Holy Innocents Episcopal Church where I’ve been privileged to serve on occasion  as a supply priest.

It will be difficult for Lahaina to be rebuilt to accommodate the people and businesses that gave it such a vibrant life.  The American land development standard of highest and best use has only one meaning: What can be built to milk the most money out of the project? Developers have got to be salivating over the possibility of making billions with an all new Lahaina rivaling Waimea.  It will take enormous courage and discipline from governmental leaders to resist the temptation. What would make some people rich would further impoverish Maui as a whole, not to mention the cultural disaster it would be.  I imagine local leaders are working on the problem even now and I hope they come up with a good solution.  From my distant view of things, I imagine something like a thousand Habitat for Humanity houses build tin “the real old style.”  Maybe another thousand tax credit financed low income apartments also built in the an island style.  My wife and I personally live in an historic town on the Mainland with fairly strict design standards, so I know it can be done.   Somehow commercial properties must be made available at costs affordable to small businesses catering to tourists and to West Maui residents. It might mean keeping out national chains. 

There are important places that can never be replaced, but they need to be reverently memorialized: Wo Hing Museum, Baldwin House, the Courthouse to name a few. Whatever and however rebuilding is accomplished, it cannot be in the usual way through loans that simply pile debt on top of debt already too heavy to bear.  It’s complicated and will require some creative thinking from leader committees to the common good of Lahaina and not the private good of investors. Maybe the millions pooled by Oprah and The Rock can be used for not-for-profit building of new homes with costs to property owners  covered by insurance settlements.  Maybe some commercial properties could be owned cooperatively in public/private partnerships willing to set rents at lowest possible levels.  Who knows?

7 thoughts on “Rebuilding Lahaina”

  1. Good food for thought. The people are facing an overwhelming task. Hopefully those with financial resources will step up. I think having specific building design requirements will help to recover some of the feel of the town. The suggestion that people can actually replace a home with insurance policy payouts and not have more debt piled on is important. Our nephew and his wife moved from Lahaina this past winter to live in San Diego. They had been there seven years, and their little home was destroyed in the fire. They were fortunate to have made their move when they did, but they have struggled emotionally while supporting their friends who are still there, homeless and without work. Please keep posting updates on the progress towards recovery of this very special place.

  2. We all need to call on Congress to repeal the Jones act which has crippled Hawaii and Puerto Rico for a century.
    This has made the daily existence of locals so much more expensive. It’s behind the mass migration of Hawaiians to Nevada.
    Creating living wage jobs means controlling all of the factors involved in daily living. Give Hawaiiana the benefit of living in the Pacific. Allow them to import directly and lower food and auto costs for starters.

    1. The 1920 Jones Act requires that goods shipped between two U.S. ports must be carried in U.S. flagged ships. It was passed after WWI as a national secvuirty move to assure a robust U.S. fleet of cargo vessels, and as a subsidy to U.S. owned shopping companies that were more expensive than foreighn carriers. It means goods shipped from the U.S. mainlaind to Hawaii must be in U.S. flagged ships, but goods arriving from anywhere else can be on a ship of any flag.
      Blind Guy

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