LIHU‘E — The Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce will be celebrating their 100 anniversary Tuesday with a “Savor the Flavors of Paradise” fundraiser at Rum Fire at the Sheraton Kaua‘i Resort.
Randall Francisco has served as the chamber’s president and CEO for the past seven years. He said the chamber today has many of the same concerns as they did decades ago, from taxes and health and unemployment insurance and workers compensation, to privatization, zoning initiatives, sign ordinances and crime prevention.
“We still have the same priorities for the improvement of our highways, harbors and parks, the Lihu‘e Airport and other master plan improvements,” Francisco said. “We also take an advocacy role through the Government Affairs Committee.”
Sugar plantations were around for more than 50 years when the chamber formed in 1913 — when Hawai‘i was still a territory. Francisco said Lihu‘e must have been a crossroads of commerce coming together.
“Most organizations are formed by civic- and like-minded people who want to help themselves and serve as a vehicle for change,” he said.
The chamber’s financial records suggest plantations provided much of the membership dues in the early days. Much of the commerce, Francisco said, was a result — direct or indirect — of the thriving sugar plantations at that time.
“I think we thrive with the same mission,” Francisco said. “Back then it was the sugar companies and laborers, and now we have gotten more into to the legislative part and are a lot more stronger in governmental affairs area and working closely with the tourism industry.”
The Garden Island newspaper of Aug. 12, 1913, records that the chamber formalized with a meeting of 17 people, officiated by Hermann Rohrig, manager of the Lihu‘e Store (the Lihu‘e Shopping Center today). The story said the founding members agreed that the organization’s purpose would be “promoting the interests of The Garden Island.”
Jack Coney is credited with naming the organization at that first meeting, after a vote was taken following debate on the topic. They also agreed on one membership requirement, to bar none that were “engaged in any honest and legitimate pursuit.”
E. E. Mahlum was elected temporary chairman and E. Behr Kealia served as temporary secretary. John Mortimer Lydgate was appointed chair of the by-laws and constitution committee.
Rohrig would be elected permanent president at that first meeting. There were three nominees and he received 12 votes to Judge Christopher Hofgaard’s five, who would become vice-president.
Since that historic day, the chamber’s long list of accomplishments give testament to its role in shaping Kaua‘i. It was first housed in the old Lihu‘e Post Office on Haleko Road, and would help establish the Kaua‘i United Way and other organizations, Francisco said.
In 1945, the chamber helped to ensure Nawiliwili Harbor would be re-opened to public use and small craft. The post-war plans had been to limit use to large ships and the military.
The chamber endorsement of a complete airport plan in 1947 helped to revise a Department of Public Works project for a one-runway Lihu‘e airport, according to The Garden Island. The recommendation came after a chamber Airport Committee presented a completed plan that started in 1945.
The chamber was also behind a master highway plan in 1952. Its members petitioned the Territorial Highway Superintendent to help divert freight traffic to Nawiliwili away from area schools, and to have an alternate route around the Lihu‘e.
More recently the chamber helped to sustain the Crime Stoppers Program by providing funds for police to offer as rewards to people who provide information leading to the conviction of criminals.
Edwina “Kaui” Tanaka now works in the Mayor’s office but she has served as the chamber executive director from 1989 to 1994.
“I am very proud to have been part of the Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce, and to see where it has grown since I was there in the early 90’s,” Tanaka said.
During her tenure, Tanaka said the members were successful at business, but were also about community and volunteerism. This dynamic made a healthy voice for business, growth and prosperity and also helped to recover from Hurricane ‘Iniki in 1992.
“I remember a board member who said it would take at least seven years to rebuild Kaua‘i after ‘Iniki, but it took a few more years to see the revitalization of our island and its economy improving,” Tanaka said.
The chamber has shifted focus in response to hardships and opportunities, Tanaka added. The decline in tourism, the closing of the sugar plantations, the economic downturns have led to a decline in workforce numbers and a need for revision, she said.
“The chamber continued to be a voice for our business community in its reconstruction,” Tanaka said. “We all had to be patient knowing that Kaua‘i’s tourism, commerce and trade, and a thriving workforce would rebound. We witnessed the rebirth of our ‘aina and took part in the rebuilding of our livelihood.”
The chamber today
Jonathan Chun is the current chamber chair and Cheryl Stiglmeier is the chair-elect. The chamber has 19 board members, with three ex-officio members.
Chamber committees include government affairs, events, promotions, small business, and crime prevention.
A monthly newsletter updates 450 members from all areas of commerce. There are also Business After Hours networking events, quarterly membership meetings and policy forums, and the annual silent auction fundraiser banquet.
Caroline Manera Texeira, chamber executive vice president and COO, said an inclusive membership is involved in decision making. It is what makes the chamber a strong and vibrant group in maintaining business and networking support.
“Sometimes people see the chamber as about parties and events, but behind the scenes, Randall (Francisco) comes into play, working with Kaua‘i legislators and county government,” she said. “We are also in close partnership with Kaua‘i Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai‘i.”
Francisco said the chamber has initiatives but will take a support role with groups such as the Kaua‘i Economic Development Board on economic strategy and planning. It is here and with state and local government that the chamber take a policy advocacy role with testimony and reports from the business community.
“It is our chance to step up for members and nonmembers who would indirectly benefit from what we do at the Legislature,” Francisco said.
A recent chamber poll on the proposed minimum wage hike was submitted as testimony at hearings in the House Labor and Finance committees. The report included 28 of 30 Westside members who report starting workers at higher than minimum wage in the interest of performance and retention and high cost of living.
The report also noted that a required minimum wage increase over two years to $9, would likely result in more hours for existing part-time staff and fewer new hires, said Francisco.
It wasn’t until 2011, three years after the recession, that Kaua‘i began to see an upward swing in the local economy. Francisco said that not everyone has recovered and Neighbor Islands lag behind O‘ahu.
“Recovery mode means watching budgets because any kind of external situation could affect us like what happened two years ago, or what happened in Japan, or the wars in the Middle East, or the Sequestration,” Francisco said.
As the unemployment rate declines, he said we need to ensure that Kaua‘i is positioning itself and matching the job market with the available workforce. The emphasis in 2013 is job sustainability, he said, and part of that is partnering with organizations and the Small Business Development Center at Kaua‘i Community College.
“Many startups have come out of the SBSC,” he said.
The chamber will sponsor the “Spring Gourmet Gala”, with the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at Kaua‘i Community College on April 12 at 6 p.m.
The Tuesday fundraiser dinner is $60 per person ($10 tax deductible), and includes a chance to win a Las Vegas drawing. Tickets are available at www.kauaichamber.org or at 245-7363.
• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0424 or by emailing email@example.com.