My Turn: Astronomy enhances Hawaii Island’s economic diversity

The latest tourism figures for Hawaii Island suggest that the island is continuing on its path to recover from last year’s devastating lava flows and severe weather. Astronomy will continue to be pivotal in helping to enhance the island’s economic diversity.

The idea of astronomy as an economic driver on Hawaii Island is not new. In fact, astronomy got its start on Hawaii Island as a direct result of the 1960 tsunami that devastated Hilo. Economically, Hilo was in shambles. Government, business and community leaders had to look for ways to emerge out of it. Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Secretary Mitsuo “Mits” Akiyama, a 442nd World War II veteran, took the lead to seek economic opportunities and was the driving force with Governor John A. Burns and state and local officials to establish a new scientific and economic enterprise, astronomy on Maunakea, in the early 1960s.

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Little did Mits and the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce know that they would overachieve and create a thriving high-tech industry that would attract partner countries from around the world, help to establish the Institute for Astronomy and position the University of Hawaii as one of the premier universities in the world to study astronomy.

Astronomy is a clean field that has substantial economic benefits for both our island and the state. There are 1,400 jobs statewide that are sustained by astronomy with economic impacts of $90 million per year on Hawaii Island and $170 million per year statewide. Here on Hawaii Island, astronomy employs more than 800 people and creates more than $28 million in paychecks that people spend here.

Astronomy as an endeavor in the United States is based in Hawaii and on Maunakea.

Keck Observatory, Subaru Telescope, Canada-France-Hawaii, and Gemini Observatory produce groundbreaking science and provide opportunities for kamaaina seeking careers in STEM endeavors. The addition of the Thirty Meter Telescope will only add to the economic benefits, and we’re already seeing positive community benefits.

TMT’s The Hawaii Island New Knowledge (THINK) Fund is making a significant investment in educational opportunities for our island’s keiki. To date, TMT’s investment in our community includes $4.5 plus million to THINK Fund at Hawaii Community Foundation and Pauahi Foundation. TMT will continue to contribute $1 million per year to the THINK Fund for scholarship and STEM programming for Hawaii Island students through the lifetime of their lease. TMT will also spend an additional $1 million per year in its Workforce Pipeline Program to provide a pathway for local kamaaina residents to get the high paying, high tech jobs of the future.

Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope alone is estimated to be in excess of $1.4 billion and will use local union labor. Once completed, TMT will generate about $26 million annually for the local economy. TMT will be part of a clean, local astronomy presence that creates good paying jobs for which local job applicants have been educated and trained; and that will help diversify our island economy.

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For more than five decades, astronomy has enriched young minds, fortified the local workforce and pumped millions of dollars into our economy. As astronomy thrives, our island thrives. All of us need to continue to respect Maunakea as astronomy continues to move forward. Maunakea must remain a world-class astronomy center, expanding to new technologies, to ensure our island and our state maintain their leadership roles in advancing scientific research and to ensure a bright future for our keiki.

Miles Yoshioka is the executive officer for the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce.