Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Contributing Editor
Mayor Billy Kenoi refuses to let the bad outweigh the good.
Kenoi, speaking Tuesday at the Destination Kona Coast luncheon, said he fully recognizes the situation but stressed residents and visitors do not have to look too far to find the positives that will carry the county through “these challenging economic times.”
In office for nearly a year, the first-term mayor must have said “these challenging economic times” more often than a West Hawaii driver has cussed at the traffic.
Kenoi faces a $100 million budget shortfall in his first three years of his term, but he said “I accept that challenge.”
He has ruled out making significant cuts to the county police and emergency services, doesn’t want to raise taxes and has directed an audit team to review every department budget.
He said he and his administration are tackling issues with wisdom and a sense of humor that will strengthen the county and improve the quality of life for its residents.
The clean beaches, clean parks and wide open spaces may be attractive to visitors, but are essential to those who live here. He said he takes his role in maintaining them very seriously.
“We can’t focus on making this a nice place to visit,” Kenoi told an audience of about 50 West Hawaii leaders in the tourism and visitor industry. “We have to make it a nice place to live.”
The Big Island is fortunate to have two harbors, two international airports, the state’s highest rate of renewable energy and agriculture, and good people, he said. It is regarded as the center of the universe for astronomy and volcano study and research.
Kenoi noted when the two Norwegian Cruise Lines’ ships left Hawaii, they took 10,000 jobs and 230,000 potential visitors with them.
However, Alaska Airlines recently adding flights direct to the Big Island – “that’s 471 passengers each week,” he said – and the emerging markets of Korea and China are expected to contribute thousands of visitors to the island in the near future.
Also, Air Canada and West Jet are expected to make a splash with flights from Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria, B.C.
Recent surveys show Canadian visitors average a seven-day stay, with 65 percent making a return visit.
While other islands are suffering a double-digit drop in visitor numbers, Kenoi said, the Big Island has recorded a dip of 5 percent.
“We’re not Maui and we’re not Waikiki,” he said.
Among other highlights of Kenoi’s keynote speech:
* Converting the county Department of Research and Development to the county Department of Economic Development.
“I don’t need more research on what we need,” he said. “We need to do it.”
The County Charter will need to be changed, Kenoi said, and that already is underway.
* Capitalizing on air traffic – not just by marketing to incoming visitors, but by exporting cargo. Kenoi said he has met with Japan Airlines officials to help ship such Big Island products as grass-fed beef, lobster, coffee and produce.
* University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Pharmacy. The college is in its third year and has an enrollment of 270. It is projected to max out enrollment at 360 students by next year and start to send graduates across the Pacific islands.
Kenoi said the school already has achieved the No. 3 ranking in the U.S.
* Ane Keohokalole Highway, or mid-level road. While final approval has yet to be announced, it is highly likely the project will get the go-ahead. The north-south road, which links Palani Road and the proposed community college campus at Palamanui, will be the single largest project in the state granted federal stimulus funds.
Kenoi said Deputy Mayor Wally Lau and West Hawaii executive assistant Bobby Command drew praise from federal assessors for their prompt and thorough work. “A year ago, it was just a line on a piece of paper,” Kenoi said.
* Furlough Fridays. Kenoi, father of three school-age children, said when his wife heard 17 instruction days would be cut from the academic year, she asked him, “So, what are you going to do?”
Within one week, his staff had 18 sites ready to offer a Summer Fun-style program and had hooked up with churches and other community groups to provide care for working parents.
Kenoi said he has hopes Gov. Linda Lingle and a special legislative session will find an innovative and creative solution to the situation.
“Seventeen Fridays – that’s a month of school gone,” he said. “It short-changes our children and our future.”
* Kona police bike patrols will be pumped up to increase a law enforcement presence in the village, promote interaction and communication with the public, and strengthen intelligence sources.
* Kailua Pier was likened to Guantanamo Bay, with a chicken wire security enclosure for cruise ship passengers and a growing problem with drugs, alcohol and anti-social behavior.
Kenoi said he would facilitate a meeting between DKC representatives, the police chief and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over the pier.
* With the Office of the Mayor, County Council, Office of the County Clerk and six County departments moving back into the newly renovated County Building at 25 Aupuni Street this week, Kenoi said the county will realize a $500,000 savings as it gives up the leases on temporary facilities.