Molokai Ranch, which owns roughly one third of the island, risked it all in an attempt to develop La`au Point (in red). Facing obstacles including a failed environmental impact statement and denied water pumping and transport rights, the Ranch says it now has no choice but to layoff 120 of its employees.
By Léo Azambuja
A bright and sunny Monday turned into one of the darkest days in Molokai’s history, when Molokai Ranch abruptly announced the shutdown of all major operations by April 5 and the layoff of over 120 employees within 60 days.
“They basically gave everybody the pink slip,” said Lester Keanini, general manager of Maunaloa Theater. He said a lot of employees walked out of the meeting in tears.
“Everybody was in shock, trying to figure out what they are going to do now,” Keanini said. “A lot of them are pretty much in the same boat that I am at.” Keanini has to figure out how to pay the mortgage on his new house in Maunaloa.
The Ranch’s CEO, Peter Nicholas said in a press release “the decision is purely a business one.”
As a final blow to the Molokai community, the Ranch blamed the overwhelming opposition to its Master Plan for not being able to continue operating.
“We deeply regret to have taken this step, as the main impact will be on our loyal employees,” Nicholas said.
“Peter Nicholas has only himself to blame,” said DeGray Vanderbilt, Chair of the Molokai Planning Commission. “Under his watch, the Ranch continued to promote an incomplete and misleading Master Plan … and early in the game threatened in writing to bring down its ‘doomsday scenario’ on Molokai if the company didn’t get what it wanted”.
Sen. Kalani English said in a press release that he hopes the Ranch’s actions were based on legitimate financial concerns, rather than “a bargaining chip in their efforts to impose their desire for development on the Molokai community."
“I feel for the people who lost their jobs, but it is not the fault of the people who are against La`au,” said Jonathan Socher, Maunaloa Kite Shop owner.
Socher said the owners of Molokai Ranch “want to blame the people of Molokai for destroying their livelihood, and the workers may believe it, because they have nothing else to believe.”
“Blame Linda Lingle, she’s the one who refused to listen to us,” Socher said. “She sided with the Ranch right from the very beginning. It’s her fault.”
Governor Linda Lingle, worrying about the impact of the Ranch’s shutdown on Molokai’s economy, said in a press release that her office and several state departments are working together to assist the employees.
“The loss of this many jobs in such a small community like Molokai is equivalent to 23,000 people on O‘ahu losing their jobs on the same day,” Lingle said.
The shut down will include the Molokai Lodge, the Kaupoa Beach Village, the Kaluakoi Golf Course, the Maunaloa gas station, the Maunaloa Tri-Plex Theater, cattle-rearing, and the company’s substantial maintenance operations.
Nicholas also said the Ranch will indefinitely close all access to its properties.
Sen. English said the Ranch has a duty to respect the native gathering rights of Molokai’s Hawaiian population. “I hope that the company will act responsibly in respecting the rights of the community," he said.
All of the Ranch’s employees belong to International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 142. “This came out of the blue,” said Abel Kahoohanohano Jr., ILWU business agent. “We had no idea.”
“From what I understand, Molokai Ranch has to give us a 60-day notification for the shutdown. That’s the State law,” Kahoohanohano said, explaining that Ranch officials had not notified him of the layoffs ahead of time.
Mayor Charmaine Tavares said in a press release “the impact on the community will be quite serious.” Calling the Ranch’s decision “devastating news,” she said she is concerned for the employees and their families, the ones who will feel the impact the most.
“Finding work on-island for the many people who will lose their jobs is next to impossible,” Council Member Danny Mateo said in a press release. “I’m concerned about potential foreclosures of homes and other immediate impacts.”
Mateo criticized the Ranch’s decision to blame the community for the shutdown. Speaking about a “project that didn’t fit,” Mateo hinted to the proposed La`au Point development.
“It seems to be a mean-spirited conclusion to punish a community that isn’t ready to deal with the type of project the company wanted,” Mateo said. “To subject the community to increased economic hardship is unfortunate.”
Mateo said he is also concerned about the company’s obligation to provide affordable housing, and with the status of existing leases with the County, such as Kaunakakai Ball Park, Papohaku Beach Park, the community center, and others.
Pilipo Solatario, who recently lost his position as the Ranch’s Cultural Director, said the employees should not take this as the end. “We need to move forward, we need to have faith. This is a heavy trial and tribulation for each of us,” he said.
“If you think that you can’t live here anymore, that thinking is negative and it will come to be,” Solatario said. “There is always something to do here.”
Sen.English said Molokai residents “have maintained segments of their historical subsistence economy, with continued reliance on fishing and agriculture to ensure that food remains available despite economic hardships."
Karen Holt, Executive Director of the Molokai Community Service Council, said her staff is concerned about the Ranch's employees, and expects that the community will pull together to support them, as it did when the pineapple plantations pulled out in the 1980s and when the Kaluakoi Hotel closed down.On April 5, Maunaloa Theater is supposed to screen its last picture-show, Keanini said. He is in contact with Hollywood Theaters, the concession holder, to try to keep the business going. In an eerie coincidence, current movie titles at the Tri-Plex reflect Molokai’s current hardships. This week’s movie listings are “Never Back Down,” “Bank Job,” and “Doomsday.”