Small Business Matters: TMT, 20 years later: what could have been

  • Law enforcement officers stood by to disperse opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope along Maunakea Access Road July 17. (PHOTO BY CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL/Honolulu Star-Advertiser)

We’ve come a long way in the 20 years that have passed since the TMT protesters decided to turn back time and not be part of the future: another generation of continuing dependence on tourism’s whims, limited opportunities for our young people, and brain drain. All of this accompanied by a sort of general societal letdown after the promise of all the good that could have been being abruptly snatched away; a kind of cultural deflation.

It’s been 20 years now since TMT, the world’s largest visible-light telescope, was on the verge of beginning construction. It had gone through a rocky, drawn-out development period; starting, stopping, arguments for, arguments against, hearings held, litigation, and then ultimately the state Supreme Court affirming that TMT had the legal right to finally begin construction. But it was not to be.

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TMT promised so much. A chance for Hawaii to take the next step in its leading role in the exploration of the stars, a development you would think would have aligned well with the example of the ancient wayfarers who discovered Hawaii relying on those same stars. You would have thought a project like TMT would have celebrated and memorialized that history and made Hawaiians proud of their ancestors’ legacy being carried forward. But no.

TMT promised accelerated development of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) environment for our young people, not only because of the money that would have been donated to local schools but also due to the expansion of the local STEM community, motivating students toward careers in those areas. Careers young people could develop and use here in Hawaii to help us meet our sustainability goals. Nope, not that either.

Then there were the other businesses that could have spun off from TMT. Clean businesses, not impacting our environment, and offering well-paying jobs so workers weren’t forced to the mainland for gainful employment. Nah, that didn’t happen, but hey, we’ve still got all those housekeeping and waitressing jobs at the resorts!

And then, once TMT had demonstrated that Hawaii had the capacity and the will to facilitate investment and to create a 21st-century economy, what about those other investors? Those who saw the advantages of Hawaii’s prime location here in the middle of the Pacific Rim economies. Not for investment in more mega-mansions, but for community investment that could have boosted us down the path toward our heavily touted goal of a sustainable, more affordable Hawaii. That didn’t happen either.

Once it became apparent that there was no reliance on the rule of law in Hawaii, you’ll remember how investors became increasingly leery about the wisdom of keeping their investment eggs in this basket.

Here in Hawaii, as with so many other things, we do it different. You can cross all the legally required t’s and dot all the mandatory i’s, develop a plan with minimal, or even no, environmental impact, have the buy-in of the majority of the community even, but then, a group that didn’t prevail following the rules takes their ball and goes home, and all due process bets are off.

No investor in their right mind, it turned out, wanted a piece of that action, so projects evaporated.

To refresh your memory about what happened back in 2019: the protesters came blocking construction access based on Maunakea’s newly fashionable, special sacredness (albeit acknowledged by them as largely symbolic of the admittedly despicable theft of the kingdom) and were not open to negotiation. The governor backed down for whatever unfathomable reason from enforcing the law and passed the buck to the mayor. The mayor said, no, not my job either to stand up for the rule of law, but I’m all for peace, let’s talk about that.

Also remember how the police sat there for months and months, enforcing, well, enforcing nothing, and finally when all was said and done, delivering the county a multi-million dollar invoice for their time. That was the hit that forced the increase in all of our property taxes a few years later. Remember that?

So here we are 20 years later and what has the TMT debacle done for us?

Well, you surely remember the worldwide recession that started in 2022. As in all previous economic downturns, people got tight with their money, and guess what, stopped traveling. As we were still stuck with tourism as our sole economic lifeblood, our economy became pretty anemic. Economic downturns last longer in Hawaii, so it took us a long time to recover from that, and here we sit in 2039, in just about the same place as we were before TMT was even a twinkle in an astronomer’s eye.

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Ah, but think about what coulda been. They’re smiling all the way to the future in the Canary Islands.

Dennis Boyd is a regular contributor to West Hawaii Today. He is active in many aspects of the West Hawaii business community and is a resident of North Kohala.

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