• A Half-Century of Business Advocacy:

    Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce Strives to Strengthen Local Economy, While Facing Challenges of Growing Community

  • "Forming the Chamber was part of Kona's growing up period after statehood in 1959," recalls Bill Mielcke, one of the organization's founders.

    "We talked about things that might benefit the community," continues Mielcke. "At that time, business focused on growing the visitor industry and to a lesser extent agriculture, primarily coffee. We were moving from an agrarian economy - with sugar and pineapple on their way out - to a tourism-based economy." 

    The Kona Chamber of Commerce was incorporated on March 19, 1968 under the leadership of Walter Stuefloten, president; Robert Seelye, first VP; Mielcke, second VP; and Jack Belanger, treasurer. The first directors included Marge Mulhull, William Ishida, Arlie Beery, Albert Kami,
    Emmy Bachtold and Fred Richards.

    “We worked on opening up more direct flights into Hilo,” remembers Mielcke, who says Kona’s small airport at that time couldn’t accommodate larger aircraft from the Mainland U.S. “Visitors would fly into Hilo, go to the volcano and come to Kona when circling the island. There was one cruise ship calling Kona annually and one of the early goals was to increase it to two.

    The early Kona Chamber hoped to make Kailua Village business improvement district but the effort died due to a lack of petition signatures. “Another big disappointment was failing to get a municipal golf course in West Hawai‘i—it was stopped by a single vote in the Planning Commission,” remembers Mielcke.

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  • In this 1990 photo, a cruise ship sits in Kailua Bay beyond Mokuʻaikaua Church's steeple. In the foreground, construction of modern-day Kailua Village. From the collections of Kona Historical Society.

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  • Chamber leaders meet with Hawaiʻi County Mayor Akana in the Huliheʻe Palace board room in 1988. 

  • The Early Years

    Successes the Chamber realized moving into the mid-1970s centered on working with state and county government for needed infrastructure to expand West Hawai‘i’s visitor industry. The projects included the Keāhole-Kona Airport; construction of the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway first to the airport, and then along the Kohala Coast; supporting the creation of resort nodes for the building of Kohala Coast resorts; development of water infrastructure for South Kohala; building of the ‘Akoni Pule Highway for North Kohala commuters and opening of Honokōhau Harbor.

    During his tenure as chair in 1977-78, Gordon Bartsch says the Chamber represented the interests of the Kona business community with both county and state government and recalls the Chamber going to bat for upgrades at Keāhole Airport. He also remembers the organization being “flat broke,” and personally calling Kona businesses to recruit new members. He doubled membership to 400 for a “needed cash cushion” and the Chamberʻs name changed to the Kona Coast Chamber of Commerce. 

    Starting in 1978, the Chamber got involved with fighting local crime. Behind the effort was 1980-81 Chamber Chair Allan Pratt. The Chamber asked West Hawaii Today readers to send a provided letter to elected officials requesting an increase in police patrol to curb the “shocking rise in traffic deaths, drunken driving, vandalism and harassment.” The Chamber offered seminars tackling shoplifting, bad checks and crime prevention while supporting the formation of a local Crimestoppers effort. In addition, the Chamber helped open a Youth Crisis Intervention Center to address the growing problem of youth crime, drug abuse and lack of recreational facilities.

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  • Virginia Isbell addressing the Kona Coast Chamber of Commerce at the 1982 Installation Dinner.

  • 1980s

    In the spring of1980, the Chamber began sponsoring weekly cruise ship arrival greetings by giving disembarking passengers a Vanda orchid. This lasted for two years and the $200 weekly expense was financed by the sale of ads in a distributed walking tour map and brochure.

    During Prattʻs tenure, the Chamber gave its support and expertise to the new Nautilus International Triathlon (later known as Ironman) and worked with government officials on a wide range of community concerns such as improving Kona Community Hospital, establishing a Circuit Court in West Hawaiʻi, constructing low-cost housing and planning for a police station in Kailua-Kona.

    Also in 1980, the Chamber sponsored a Junior Achievement program with volunteer advisors teaching over 200 Konawaena High School students the principles of free enterprise. In 1982, the Chamber partnered with other island of Hawaiʻi chambers to produce a 20-minute film, “Living and Sharing…Our Big Island,” to promote a welcoming attitude toward tourists and the tourism industry.

    As the Kohala Coast development was underway in the mid-1980s, the organization changed its name to the Kona-Kohala Chamber of CommerceBill Knutson, 1984-85 chair, explains the name change reflected the Chamber’s desire to represent all of West Hawai‘i, while offering its services to Kohala businesses. The Chamber Board of Directors also expanded to included vice chairs from each of the organization’s four represented districts: North Kohala, South Kohala, North Kona and South Kona – designations still in use today

    “Having a vice chair from each of the four districts made it work,” notes Knutson. “The name change also increased membership.”  

    With the Chamber’s membership growing, it was decided in 1987 to increase dues to pay for a full-time executive director. This was a “major milestone” for the organization, according to Wilton Wong, 1986-87 chair. During this time, the KKCC worked to increase county representation and tax dollar spending in West Hawai‘i. The Chamber partnered with other organizations— the Hawaii Hotel Association, the Restaurant Association and the Hawaii Leeward Planning Conference—for presenting a unified voice when advocating for West Hawai‘i expenditures.

    “Garbage was a big issue,” notes Wong, who said the Chamber questioned: “Why haul garbage from the East Side to a site close to the Gold Coast where the bulk of Hawai‘i County tax dollars originate?”

    The late 1980s were heady times in West Hawai‘i with a surge in visitor industry growth and development. This growth period brought about full employment and businesses struggling to find employees.

    “Chamber discussions during this period focused on the need to ‘grow wisely’ and to find solutions to many of the issues associated with growth including infrastructure development and affordable housing,” details Ross Wilson, 1988-89 chair. “We also saw the need for the state to share revenues with the county to alleviate the need to grow real property tax revenue to fund local government operations.”

    Wilson adds, “While the vibrancy of today’s visitor industry along the Kona-Kohala Coast had its start during this time, fast growth saddled the community with infrastructure woes that have taken years and significant investment to alleviate."

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  • The inaugural visit of the cruise ship Infinity to Kailua-Kona was commemorated by the ship's officer and Marni Herkes, KKCC executive director 1990-2001.

  • 1990s

    Gregory Ogin, 1991-92 chair, says the Chamber was busy with legislative involvement at both the county and state levels moving in the 1990s. Issues of importance for the Chamber included advocating for more and better roads: the Ane Keohokālole Highway, widening of the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway and an extension of Kealakehe Parkway up to Māmahaloha Highway. KKCC also pushed for international carrier capability at Keāhole-Kona Airport.  

    According to Marni Herkes, who served as the Chamber’s executive director from 1990-2001, the Chamber partnered with other island chambers to form the Big Island Business Council and presented state legislators with a booklet detailing important island initiatives needing attention.  The Chamber also pushed for West Side representation in the mayor’s office, resulting in the formation of a deputy manager position based in West Hawai‘i.   

    A Chamber challenge during the ‘90s was handling the influx of businesses and residents moving into West Hawai‘i. The Chamber was often contacted by prospective newcomers for info on housing, schools and employment. To fulfill this need, the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce assembled and mailed a relocation package to inquiries with updated information that included a handy Chamber membership directory.

    According to Ken Ono, 1997-98 chair, the Chamber pushed for responsible growth in the late ‘90s as the consequences of rapid growth, such as heavy pau hana traffic and scheduled rolling blackout power outages, were frustrating residents.

    “The Chamber looked at how we wanted West Hawai‘i developed and then weighed in on multi-year projects that would affect our quality of life,” explains Ono. He says developers made time to consult the Chamber about prospective projects to get both feedback and its blessing.

    Recognizing that Kona’s urban core was moving north and West Hawai‘i needed better educational resources, the KKCC organized the community to push for the building of a new community college campus. It also advocated for a new hospital in North Kona, believing good health care is essential for the growing community and necessary to keep new residents happy. “The governor, mayor and local politicians were all behind it, but the idea didn’t get approved by Queen’s (Medical Center),” notes Ono.

    The Chamber disapproved of a proposed Ali‘i Bypass, saying the road’s placement a block from Ali‘i Drive, in a neighborhood next to Kahakai School, was a poor one. “We recognized the need to alleviate traffic, but felt a better alternative was extending Kuakini Highway to Kamehameha III Road,” details Ono.

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  • In the early 2000s, Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce and Kona Outdoor Circle partner to conduct Malama ʻAina clean-ups in Kailua Village and at Kahaluʻu Beach Park.

  • 2000s

    The millennium brought a time of building within the Chamber organization. Ron Aronson, chair for 2000-02 and 2006-07, says the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce formed a new Executive Committee made up of board members and instituted strategic planning sessions to establish each year’s goals. Opportunities for member involvement were increased with the formation of committees, like education and membership, and the start of AfterHours, a monthly networking pau hana.

    “Our focus was on a combination of business community involvement with the philosophy we can’t have a healthy business environment without a healthy community,” explains Aronson.

    To achieve that end, KKCC partnered with the Kona Outdoor Circle for Malama ‘Aina Cleanups. Volunteers cleaned and re-striped a downtown Kailua parking lot and spruced up Kahalu‘u Beach Park. The Chamber began a series of environmental conferences which led to the formation of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, a precursor to today’s Sustainability Committee.

    “We recognized that without our pristine natural resources—what we market here in Hawai‘i— if we endanger those, we are killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” emphasizes Aronson.

    “This focus on environment brought in many new members and the membership swelled to 750, making us the second largest chamber in the state,” continues Aronson. “I think people respect the Chamber more when it has a more balanced outlook.”  

    During this decade, the Chamber was a strong advocate for the formation of the Kailua Village Business Improvement District, which was established in 2007 to make Kailua Village a better place to invest, work, live and play. The Chamber was active in starting up its monthly Kokua Kailua program.

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  • KKCC President and CEO Vivian Landrum with Governor Lingle Lingle and Board Chair Eric Von Platen Luder in early 2000s.

  • Vivian Landrum, Chamber CEO from 2006-14, says the Chamber’s focus during the recession became education, providing seminars on how small businesses can reinvent, restructure and reconfigure business and financial plans, plus operations. Through this challenging time, Landrum feels the Chamber emerged with a solid member base and committed volunteers who served on the board and various committees.

    Successes Landrum recalls during her nine-year tenure not only included the Economic Summit, but also the relationship the Chamber developed and maintained with elected officials, finding it gratifying when called upon by lawmakers for an opinion prior to casting a vote.

    “I also measured success by how the Chamber supported its members individually,” adds Landrum. “When one business succeeds with support from a Chamber educational program, a seminar, a legislative issue advocated for or against, or even the networking opportunities offered, I always felt that was a success for the Chamber.” 

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  • Board members Pam Latinis and Nick Sutton facilitate a brainstorming session at the Hawaiʻi Island Economic Summit 2012.

  • 2010s

    Building for public purpose was the inspiration of Debbie Baker, 2011-13 chair, who says the Chamber’s aim during her tenure “was to realize the importance of and advocacy for university, government and nonprofit and corporate sector partnerships.” KKCC’s focus centered on the building of the new Hawai‘i Community College (HawCC) - Pālamanui. and the future West Hawai‘i Judiciary building. The backing of the Thirty Meter Telescope was also a top priority.

    “I suppose my term leading the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce was unique,” muses Baker. “Our island was swooning under pressure from the Great Recession. Unemployment was over 10% and the economic pillars of our community—  tourism, real estate and construction— were struggling to regain their footing. Our confidence was shaken, but not our spirit.” 

    KKCC presented Hawaii Island Economic Summit 2012 – Expanding Our Horizons as a gathering place for over 200 thinkers, leaders and change-makers to discuss ideas, visions and concepts to break out of the economic doldrums. 

    “Perhaps the recession’s silver lining has been our rediscovery of the value of working together and of reaching across all the communities on this island to collaborate on solutions together.

    When Dale Suezaki, 2015-17 chair came on board, West Hawai‘i’s economic recovery was in full swing with improved visitor counts and capital improvement projects underway. The top three initiatives for KKCC were the long-waited Kona Airport modernization, completion of the first phase of HawCC-Pālamanui and building of the Kona Judiciary Complex. Chamber support also ensued for STEM education, the need to develop a strong workforce and the building of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).

    KKCC led the formation of a coalition comprised of statewide chambers, union and business organizations to lend unified support for TMT. KKCC collaborated with all the stakeholders to draft a pro-TMT letter to Governor David Ige, which was subsequently published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser October, 2015. “It was truly a demonstration of the power of collaboration and working together,” Suezaki notes.

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  • Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce and Hatsukaichi Chamber of Commerce and Industry celebrate 10th Anniversary of sister chamber relationship in 2016.

  • Appreciating the importance of international connections, the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce marked the 10th anniversary of its sister relationship with Hatsukaichi, Japan in 2016. Kirstin Kahaloa, 2015-17 ED, led a delegation from KKCC to Japan during the summer of 2016 and the Hatsukaichi Chamber reciprocated with a visit to Hawai‘i in the fall. Kona festivities included a commemorative dinner attended by local dignitaries and long-time Chamber supporter, Alfreida Fujita of Kimura Lauhala Shop. Kimura’s joined the Chamber during its inaugural year in 1968.

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  • The Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce strongly advocated for the construction of Hawaiʻi Community College – Pālamanui campus that opened in 2015.

  • To determine the existing and future needs of the Kona-Kohala business community, the Chamber completed a workforce assessment report in 2016. the idea to analyze the workforce needs of local businesses grew into a wider community conversation on the necessity of educational opportunities that are responsive to the requirements of West Hawaiʻi industries. The effort resulted in the Pohā Ka Lama forum in partnership with Hawaiʻi Community College – Pālamanui, was was attended by over 80 business and education leaders; West Hawaiʻi career/job fairs and a push toward internship opportunities with local businesses. 

    Looking ahead, current KKCC Executive Director Wendy Laros feels the Chamber's future is "very bright" as KKCC "works with community partners to leverage local resources to create career pathways and opportunities and workforce readiness. Increasing education and training opportunities in West Hawaiʻi will enhance the quality of life for those in our community while elevating economic prosperity for the region."


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  • The 2018 Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors take their oath to serve while celebrating a significant milestone in the organization's history - the 50th Anniversary.  

  • Fifty years ago, West Hawaiʻi was transitioning from an agricultural to a tourism economy. Through the years, the Chamber has evolved to address the business needs of the growing community while managing change. Whether eyeing planned development, organizing cruise ship greetings, cleaning up downtown parking lots or working for the construction of needed infrastructure, the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce has provided valuable leadership and advocacy for a prospering business environment in West Hawaiʻi.