Talk Story with Nalani Brun

From working on cultural restoration projects to organizing the Waimea Town Celebration, there is never a dull moment for Nalani Brun.

“It’s a constant anything and everything. The great thing about it is that you’ll never get bored,” Brun said.

Brun, the tourism specialist for the Office of Economic Development, works with businesses to promote tourism on the island. She also works to foster relationships between the OED, other departments and the private sector to promote cooperation and productivity.

When it comes to tourism, Brun understands that there’s a fine line between making Kauai visitors and residents happy.

“We look at how tourism affects our island and our people,” she said. “It’s not like we live in Disneyland. This is our world and our life. We don’t get to go home at the end of the day; we live in the tourism industry.”

Brun started in the OED after Hurricane Iniki, to help the island rebuild tourism.

“A lot of my work is recovery of culture, maintaining relationships with cultural organizations and organizing festivals and events — things that make residents feel more comfortable and where tourism benefits residents,” she said.

What does the Office of Economic Development do?

We try to make a government office operate more like a business, which is what we need to be in the Office of Economic Development — we work a lot with businesses, but they don’t understand what we’re saying because we speak in government speak. So we try to bridge the gap between the two, and it’s not easy.

I can see probably why economic development probably wasn’t the original thought when they created the charter. They focused on basic necessities — police, security, fire, parks. Then economic development is there, thinking how we fit into that. Well, at the time of the charter, there was no jobs, and that’s why the OED was created. We don’t create jobs here, we try to help it along.

Our goal is to keep our kids here, so there’s another generation of us growing up here. But if there’s no jobs, or no well-paying jobs, then we have a problem.

We also help fund some of the parks projects. I look for grant money to help the county do things.

How many people are in the office?

We have 10. Most people are in specialized areas.

What projects have you done that you are the most proud of?

My favorite thing is the people. I’m most proud of relationship building within the county.

We have a couple of programs that are new. We are trying to do a Worksite Wellness Program that I’m heading up for the Mayor’s Office. Basically, looking at county employees, which we’ve been doing for a long time, and realizing they are such a good asset, but we don’t know how to motivate them to go to the next level.

So we created the Employee Council, who were the most motivated of every department who came together to work on things. Eventually, that became the Human Resources Department. From the Employee Council, we started looking at wellness within county employees and how well they function. Insurance companies are interested in it because they’re trying to keep their costs down, and they realized that a healthy employee has lower costs. We are heading up worksite wellness projects.

With the county, it’s a mindset change, and we’re looking at writing policy so we can spread it around. It’s for simple things — if you’re going to have a party, have an option that’s healthy. We’re writing policies for nutrition and wellness and are looking at how to get employees exercising before, during or after work. We found the work product is better if people are exercising.

The other thing I love is cultural restoration. I get to work with a lot of kupuna or other leaders in the cultural world. Even though I danced hula all my life, sang Hawaiian music all my life, you never feel like you’re at the same level as these people, who are restoring things that are old. We found that families associated with those areas are re-bonding, and that’s our hope. It would give Native Hawaiians and supporters of Hawaiian culture something to focus on, other than what a lot of our community is focused on — whether that be fighting about this or ice, or any of the other harsh things that are out there. So we’re trying to shift their focus in a positive direction.

What are the cultural restoration projects you’ve been involved with?

There’s Kaneioluma, in Poipu, which is a big one and is many years in the making. When Hui Malama O Kaneioluma uncovered the heiau, there were rocks there, and they found people were trying to take these beautiful, sacred rocks. So they came to us, saying there was a security issue. So we tried to get funding to build a huge wall around it. They’ve planted native plants around it, and there’s signage that will go up in the next few months.

I’m currently looking at Kukui Heiau, in Wailua. The county actually owns it, but they want a caretaker, and there are people who care for the area really well. We want to do a stewardship agreement because we want a way to maintain the community.

With restoration comes education an an opportunity to teach about culture and language, things that are difficult to keep strong.

What events have you worked on?

For a long time, I worked with the Hawaii Tourism Authority for funding for festivals and events. That’s been fun because I get to work with the community. To see people grow their events into something people look forward to, it’s rewarding.

We fund Waimea Town Celebration and the Koloa Rodeo.

How did you get your start in the OED?

Prior to this, I was in the private sector, working at Garden Island Realty.

Then I went into the tourism industry, and the hurricane hit. That’s when I got hired by OED to come in and help rebuild the visitor industry — getting the word out that we didn’t sink into the middle of the ocean, but we needed time to rebuild, so don’t come visit. So I created a hotline number for people to call to get information. We also told people what hotels were repaired and which weren’t. Slowly, but surely, tourism came back.

How long have you been at the county?

I’m closing in on 20 years. I love it here. I love being here because with government, you have the opportunity to touch a lot of people. Whereas a lot of other companies are focused on one thing. In government, you have this capability of doing a lot for a lot of people, and that’s exactly what I want to do.

How many projects do you work on at once?

Probably, on a given day, I have five major projects I’m working on. We also have 120 grants in this office that we write.

This job is about perseverance because if you don’t hang in there, you’re never going to see the end of a project.

What’s your favorite part about living on Kauai?

I’m totally connected to the land. I’m tied to the land, whether I like it or not.

I was born in Lihue and grew up in Wailua. I love the ocean and hiking — that’s my outlet to get away from things. I like the Sleeping Giant and Kokee — the hike through Alakai Swamp. I love the mountains, the mountains calm me down.

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