KAILUA-KONA — Gov. David Ige’s campaign favors its candidate an “innovative and collaborative leader,” and there are few places that’s more evident, Ige says, than in West Hawaii.
Among the accomplishments the governor touted Sunday is the Queen Kaahumanu Highway widening project, the second phase of which was on ice for several years due to legal complications before the governor took office and said he made promptly reviving it a priority.
Although hampered by cost overruns and delays, the project is expected to be substantially completed by September, easing the way for traffic from the now significantly busier Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole — another source of pride for the Ige administration, as it was recently recertified for international flights.
Big Island visitor arrivals were up just shy of 15 percent through the first half of 2017 and visitor spending was up $500 million during that same time period. Those are numbers the governor attributed significantly to international flights, and numbers he fully expects will continue to rise.
“I can tell you there are a couple other international airlines that are looking to establish flights into Kona as we speak,” said Ige, who was on island Sunday. “Very shortly we’ll be making announcements of additional international carriers that will be servicing Kona.”
While the governor couldn’t name those airlines yet, he said his administration’s work at the airport is indicative of state leadership interested in development and investment beyond Oahu’s shores.
“I know that any of the other airports would have loved the opportunity to reopen international service, and we were focused on (KOA) because it used to be one, but we definitely also knew … certainly the economy would benefit from that,” he said.
Ige said his support of the residency program at Hilo Medical Center to combat the physician shortage posing a major problem for outer islands was another example of his dedication to Big Island voters.
He singled out the Saddle Road extension, the establishment of Hawaii Community College — Palamanui, and millions for a new Kona courthouse as accomplishments significant to West Hawaii.
Ige also mentioned last year’s 9 percent drop in homelessness statewide, the first of its kind in nearly a decade, as well as the creation of 5,300 homes on the path to his administration’s goal of 10,000 new homes across the state by 2020.
“For someone to think we’re rudderless and not making progress is absolutely absurd,” said Ige, referencing criticisms from U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, largely considered the incumbent’s stiffest competition leading up to Hawaii’s Democratic gubernatorial primary election.
“There is a huge difference (between) someone talking about what they would like to do versus (my ability) to tell you what I have done,” the governor continued. “That is a huge difference in experience and actual ability to deliver results.”
But Ige’s detractors are not without ammunition as the August primary approaches.
This month’s false alarm involving a missile scare that left citizens frenzied and fearing for their lives tops the list, and the still anonymous employee responsible for the gaffe has reportedly remained uncooperative with multiple investigations into the matter.
“I do believe they had the opportunity to interview all of the employees for our investigation,” Ige said, intimating the nameless employee has cooperated at least with the internal investigation the governor said he launched immediately.
Ige went on to say that protocols have already been put in place to assure the incident never repeats itself, adding the safety of Hawaii’s people and the integrity of its emergency alert systems are top priorities.
Another potential hiccup for the Ige campaign could be the fate of the Thirty Meter Telescope, a multi-billion dollar astronomy project years in the making and slated for Maunakea. TMT set a deadline of April 20 for resolution of the contested case hearing before abandoning Hawaii Island as the project site. But Ige remained optimistic Sunday.
“Certainly, we believe that our process was correct. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court had ruled differently,” the governor said. “I’ve had personal conversations with representatives of the ministry in Japan to express my full support for the project, and I’ve encouraged them to have patience so that the Supreme Court can rule.”
Moving forward, Ige said his top initiatives will remain homelessness, economic development and continued work on education — specifically empowering local educators with more autonomy.
“We are getting rid of the one-size-fits-all, every school should look the same notion,” he explained. “We want the community to be engaged and those closest to the children making the most important decisions about what and how the children should be learning.”
Economically, Ige mentioned legislation to add $5 million to a farm loan program to help agricultural producers double homegrown, sustainable food output.
He also spoke of combining the state’s push to 100 percent clean, renewable energy to attract investment in endeavors like Hawaii Island’s Huhonua Bio Energy facility, as well as modernizing intellectual property rights to help the University of Hawaii at Manoa become a bigger economic driver through enhanced opportunities to capitalize on innovation.
Considered by several of the state’s political pundits to be an incumbent underdog, Ige said he remains unfazed by any such perceptions. After all, he’s beaten longer odds.
“The last time nobody gave us any chance of winning,” Ige said. “So it’s not something that’s new to me.”