2007年03月22日

Population flowing fastest to Big Island


Lower home prices and a more relaxed lifestyle continue to draw new residents to the Big Island, which has seen a 15.1 percent population increase since 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released today.

Hawai'i County officials say the influx is stretching government services and clogging highways, since much of the growth is taking place in rural areas that lack paved roads, water and other public facilities, and require long commutes.

"It's been difficult to keep up with this kind of population growth. It has created a lot of strain," said planning director Chris Yuen.

The Big Island's lifestyle and the spectacular scenery are what attracted police officer Mike Molnar, his wife and four children, who left Eau Claire, Wis., in 2003 and moved to Hilo.

Molnar, 45, had visited on several occasions and "I fell in love with the place. It just made so much sense and everyone was so friendly and receptive."

The cost of living "was almost a deterrent," he said, but in the end, financial concerns were outweighed by the Big Island's natural beauty and atmosphere.

The Census figures also show Maui County, the hot ticket in the 1990s, experienced a 10.3 population increase during the same period, while Kaua'i's population grew 7.8 percent and O'ahu 3.8 percent.

The state as a whole added nearly 74,000 people from April 1, 2000, to July 1, 2006, an increase of 6.1 percent. But Hawai'i County claimed 30 percent of those new arrivals, the Census Bureau said.

"The Big Island is the star Maui used to be," said Eugene Tian, research and statistics officer with the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

The population increase on the Big Island in recent years is largely because of the influx of people moving to the county from other islands in the state, the Mainland and foreign countries.

The data indicate that 17,531 new residents moved to the county from 2000 to 2006, an average of 2,922 a year. A lesser factor is the "natural" increase in population from the number of births minus deaths. For that same period, the natural population increase for the Big Island was 5,446, an average of 908 per year.

CHEAPER HOMES

The attraction for many is cheaper housing. The $420,000 median price for a single-family home on the Big Island is $200,000 less than on other islands, and in the rural Puna district, where much land remains open to development, the median home price is well under $300,000, Yuen said.

Only a third of the subdivision lots in Puna have been built out, he said.

"The biggest reason for the population increase here on the Big Island is that you have all these lots that were created in the 1950s and '60s, mostly in Puna and Ka'u, and there's just an available spot for people to move to and the prices tend to be quite a bit less than the rest of the island," he said.

The fast-growing regions are located well away from jobs, meaning long commutes to Hilo or Kona and a traffic strain on highways. Resorts were built without providing affordable housing for workers, "so you have people who are commuting long distances, sometimes 70 miles or more. That's not something that's going to work long-term," Yuen said.

The increase in population hasn't made a dent in the long list of job vacancies posted by the county and private employers. In fact, vacancies have tripled, according to county personnel specialist Gabriella Cabanas.

"The Catch-22 is that when we have more people relocating here, there is a greater need for public services," and the county has had to create additional positions each year, she said.

Cabanas said she receives applications from off-island candidates planning to move to the county because they have family there or want to raise their kids in a small-town environment.

"Others are people who are retiring elsewhere and they are coming here to work a second job in their career. They still want to work but they want a more relaxing lifestyle."

Tian said statewide population growth has been stable at a modest average annual rate of 1 percent for the past five years, after seven years of growth below 1 percent.

IMMIGRANTS SETTLE IN

Although a number of residents left Hawai'i for jobs elsewhere, that loss was offset by migration from people from foreign countries.

The census said 9,275 people left the state from April 1, 2000, to July 1, 2006. However, 31,092 new residents moved here from other countries. That made the net gain from domestic and foreign migration combined 21,817 residents, or an average of 3,650 per year.

Most of the state's population gain over the six-year period was due to a natural increase of 56,251 babies, or an average of 9,400 births per year.

Honolulu was the only county to suffer a net loss in migration. It also was the only county to gain more of its population from a natural increase.

From July 1, 2005, to July 1, 2006, Hawai'i County's population increased by 4,730 residents, while O'ahu added 5,218 people, Maui 1,633 and Kaua'i 639.

Of the 6,720 residents who moved here from foreign counties during the year, 5,535 settled in Honolulu.

The census estimates also document a greater dispersal of the state's population, which likely will provide the Neighbor Islands with greater political and economic clout in the years to come.

In 1990, Honolulu was home to 75.3 percent of the state's population. By July 2006, Honolulu's share of residents had dropped to 70.8 percent.

Hawai'i's oft-forgotten fifth county is Kalawao, consisting of the Hansen's disease settlement on Kalaupapa, Moloka'i. The Census data estimate a decline in the Kalawao County population from 147 in April 2000 to 120 in July 2006.