LIHUE — If the rest of the year is anything like the Kauai Chamber of Commerce’s first quarter general membership meeting Thursday, it’s going to be a doozy.
About 300 people — twice as many as there were for last year’s first quarter meeting — turned out at the Aqua Kauai Beach Resort for an upbeat, enthusiastic, laugh-filled affair.
Business, community and political leaders joined the celebration that featured keynote speaker Paul Brewbaker, whose mixed economic outlook was highlighted by jokes, some at his expense, some at his audience’s.
“What an amazing turnout,” said Mark Perriello, chamber president and CEO. “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
He has high expectations for Hawaii on the Hill, set for June. Business owners and others will travel to Washington, D.C., to showcase Kauai’s industries and aloha spirit for legislators.
Perriello said it’s important to be there because federal funds have been secured as a result of what happens at Hawaii on the Hill, and it has the potential to open new markets for local businesses.
He also said each person at the meeting was part of a movement to strengthen Kauai’s economy.
“It’s going to take a real grassroots effort on behalf of the business community in order to really impact this conversation,” he said. “It’s going to take all of you weighing in.”
Tess Shimabukuro, president and CEO of Kauai Community Federal Credit Union, offered a few words. KCFCU was the meeting’s platinum sponsor.
“Growing up, you never hear anyone say, ‘I want to grow up and work in a credit union.’ You never hear that,’” she said.
Shimabukuro is the credit union’s first woman president and CEO and she called it “one of the most rewarding jobs.”
“We are a business with a tangible altruistic mission, and that is people helping people,” she said.
KCFCU is one of the 10 largest credit unions in the state, with 34,000 members on Kauai. Each member has an equal voice, Shimabukuro said, regardless of the amount of money they have with the credit union.
“Our board and staff work hard to make sure we enrich the lives of our members,” she said.
Brewbaker, in a 40-minute presentation marked by roars of laughter and a few puzzled looks, said the economy is “not too hot, not too cold, and growing,” with many businesses reporting they had their best year.
“The problem is, you never know when something is going to come along,” he said, in reference to Hurricane Iniki.
He included a number of humorous lines throughout, including subtle jabs at President Donald Trump, former Vice President Al Gore, and a joke about employers stealing each others’ employees due to the state’s unemployment rate just under 3 percent, the lowest in 10 years.
“The whole point now is to keep it like this, good like this, for as long as possible,” he said.
Brewbaker even took a shot at his own charts and graphs recording economic changes and projections.
“You in the back can’t see them and the ones in the front don’t care,” he said.
“This is getting boring,” he said later, “so I’ll stop.”
Of concern, Brewbaker said, is that visitor spending in Hawaii, when factoring in inflation, is flat, housing costs are soaring and interest rates will be rising.
Kauai, he said, has resisted growth in the the past, and it has hurt the island’s economy.
“You need room to grow. Otherwise, you turn into a wall,” Brewbaker said.
When writing his summary for the presentation, he said he got “really bummed out.”
“We’ve done things in this state to make it difficult to grow the economy,” he said. “It’s just way more challenging than it used to be.”
For example, he referenced Hawaii Dairy Farm’s plan for a dairy in the Mahaulepu Valley, and took a shot at those opposing it.
“It’s ag land. What did you think was going to happen?” he said. “This is what we’ve done to Kauai now. You can’t even have a farm on ag land.”
Brewbaker said the economy is growing at 1 to 2 percent, while depreciation is about 4 percent.
“So buildings are wearing out faster than we’re growing the entire economy,” he said. “How does that happen?”
As for the rising cost of housing in Hawaii, and in particular on Kauai, he said there is a solution. It’s not banning air B&Bs or Muslims, he said.
“The solution is, build more houses,” Brewbaker said. “Hey, you had the babies, yo. Don’t look at me. They grew up and now they’re living with you at home.”
Laughter aside, Perriello believes it is going to be a strong year for Kauai’s chamber and businesses.
“Times are changing, people are acknowledging Hawaii can be a good place to do business,” he said.