Along with my colleagues in the business community, I’m frequently complaining; complaining about the varieties of the consternating and less than efficient policies and regulations that make doing business in Hawaii such a challenge.
Our common mantra is generally along the lines of: “Hey, it’s tough and expensive enough as it is to do business way out here. Why do the powers that be have to make it worse by truly mind-numbing bureaucratic incomprehensibility?”
We are always looking over the ocean to the mainland for examples of how efficiencies can be introduced to our way of doing business in Hawaii, how “they” in whatever state we are using as our example, do things “there.” And while there is some grass-is-always-greener thinking to that, this is also a pretty natural reaction to the conservative countervailing mantra we keep hearing, about how “things are different in Hawaii,” or “we just don’t do things that way.”
But I’m thinking we all need to take a collective breath in our critical hyperventilation for just a few minutes. I come to this enlightened place after a recent trip to the mainland where, for the first time in a long time, I re-experienced the “there” of there, and got a renewed feeling of just how different we really are “here” and how we need to value that and build on it, not substitute for it.
My comparisons started with the rarified hipness of Denver, a place I long called home, which is now cutting-edge, high-tech and forward thinking. All good things I suppose, but a bit much when conglomerated together as components of a sense of place. The sense of place becomes a sense of non-place, or rather a part of some generalized place that looks like so many other high-tech places you might as well be in any one of them. This is the antithesis of always uber-local Hawaii: viva la vida local, right?
Colorado ranks No. 5 in the nation in CNBC’s Top States for Business, and we would love to have some of the high-tech investment, innovative technologies, and access to capital that makes it so here in Hawaii, but not by looking like everywhere else functioning at that same level.
Then on to Orlando, the capital of capitalism, with its acres of tract homes at ridiculously low prices by Hawaii standards, it’s array of shopping potential, and busy and quick development. There’s always an entrepreneur advertising some deal in Florida, a better tomorrow is always promised around the corner, and it’s happening fast. That’s the history of Florida, except that that tomorrow can seem like it doesn’t really have legs, staying power. It could all blow away in a hurricane of impermanence.
Florida ranks No. 10 in that same CNBC poll, and we would definitely welcome some share of its speed of development, but it somehow seems rootless, and back to the hurricane metaphor, like it could blow away tomorrow in the next wave of change that comes down the pike.
Lastly on to a relative’s college graduation in Delaware. The academic accomplishments were impressive, the campus established and vast, the fields of study voluminous. But as impressive and intellectually promising as all the graduates were, it struck me that they all, almost literally, looked the same: there was zero diversity. OK, maybe not absolute zero, maybe plus .5, but far away from the vibrant cultural diversity of Hawaii.
So where am I going with all this? My point is that we get so used to bemoaning Hawaii as a business environment we sometimes neglect to look at our glass half full. If there is anything going for us, and it’s a lot and why we are all here, it’s the sense that we are a unique place, and that is the message our tourism officials carry around the world in their promotion of Hawaii and as the foundation of our No. 1 industry.
The challenge for us is to marry the technology and innovations and workforce we see over the water, way over there on the mainland, with what is special about this place here. We need to take the good and leave the less than good. Take the uniqueness and leave the uniformity, take the innovation but ground it in the cultural roots of our islands.
Hawaii has somehow miraculously risen from No. 50 to No. 47 on the CNBC Top States for Business rankings, but despite that meteoric rise, we’ve got a long way to go. After my recent mainland sojourn, seeing where progress has taken some of the top-ranking states, I’m not necessarily sure about the striving. We are certainly wise in working for business change in Hawaii, but let’s not delude ourselves in wishing for the moon, there’s a chance, remote, but still a chance, that we could get it.
Dennis Boyd is the director of the West Hawaii Small Business Development Center, which is funded in part with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Hawaii at Hilo.