PMRF’s continued importance fuels more high-tech growth

An anchor can sometimes be something to stop the progress of something else, like a ship’s anchor. Or, an anchor can be something of prime importance, like an anchor store in a shopping mall.

The U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, west of Kekaha, is many things to many people.

It is an anchor (in this use something of extreme import) for the island’s rapidly growing high-technology industry, a provider of jobs for nearly 1,000 Kaua’i people, an attractor of private and public high-tech endeavors, and a test facility like no other in the world.

But up until just four years ago, the phrase “high-tech” mentioned at the beach or other social gathering would elicit perplexed looks and responses, or perhaps the idea that the one who uttered the words was talking about a new audio stereo system he had just purchased or installed.

And then there was the time also not long ago when PMRF was fighting for its life, named on a list of U.S. military bases around the globe targeted for closure by the U.S. government.

The closure was averted, the high-tech industry got a toehold on the island, and through the tireless efforts of many people, in particular U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye (D, Hawai’i), the industry continues to grow.

In the spring of 1999, Kaua’i had zero commercial companies in high-tech industries with facilities or offices away from the base. This year, six companies with 150 well-paid technical, scientific people, are leasing 22,000 square feet of space beyond the PMRF gates.

And more are on the way. By the spring of next year, the island expects to be home to 300 “techies” and scientists employed by a dozen companies, including Solipsys (software, networking, sensors), Loea (information technology, high-speed wireless communications), Trex, SAIC (IT services), Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Labs (advanced electronics technology), Digital Systems Resources, Cambridge Research, Textron, and Kaua’i offices of O’ahu-based businesses like STI, Oceanit, and the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii.

With Inouye’s efforts not only to keep the base open, but to get federal funds to expand its capabilities, coupled with the relative isolation and perfect weather the Westside and its near ocean waters provide, the base proved a perfect place to establish the world’s preeminent missile testing and training facility.

In fact, Inouye’s continued good health is listed as one of many factors required for strong future growth of the island’s technology industry.

The industry got a huge boost last week when President Bush announced he would support establishment of both land- and ship-based missile defense systems to protect the country from short- and medium-range missile attacks.

The announcement was good news for PMRF, for Solipsys, and for high-tech on the island, said Leslie Bailey, Kaua’i operations manager for Solipsys.

Through Inouye’s efforts, PMRF is poised to become the home test range of the theater high-altitude air defense system (THAAD), a project with billion-dollar implications for the island.

Though not all on Kaua’i are embracing the high-tech industry, the fact is that it is, and likely will continue to be, the biggest single industry forging diversification of the economy from the tourism-based model of today.

In five years, the high-tech industry on the island could be 15 percent to 20 percent of the island’s economy, up from around 12 percent today, according to figures from the Kauai Economic Development Board (KEDB).

The industry also offers the greatest hope for bringing back the island’s young, best and brightest natives, who for decades have gone off to college, gotten degrees, and in many cases never returned home for more than a vacation because of few non-tourism job opportunities here.

The new year will see two new high-tech facilities coming on line, those being the 15,000-square-foot Kauai Technology Center phase two at Waimea, and the Solipsys Network Application Integration Facility (NAIF) at Kukui Grove Village West.

Both are already fully leased, with just a few contract negotiations to be finalized on the Waimea facility, said Pam Parker of KEDB. Were it not for water and wastewater limitations at Waimea, KEDB would probably have broken ground already for a third phase of technology center there, she said.

That means the logical next new facility will likely be centrally located, probably in Lihu’e, she said.

Because of the importance of PMRF, and the conventional wisdom that over the next few years millions and millions of dollars in new construction and new programs will be installed there, it will remain the high-tech industry’s island anchor.

That increased importance will fuel continued private-sector growth in high technology, and KEDB’s role in providing leasable office space for the industry helps companies interested in setting up shop here overcome a major hurdle, Bailey said.

The nonprofit corporation’s finding, buying or building office space is a major incentive for companies to establish operations on the island, she added.

A major plus for Kaua’i is that the new companies hire locally whenever possible, and have immediately become involved in community-services projects that Bailey said provide “lots of payback” for the new companies.

Business Editor Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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