2017 in review: Island Air makes final landing, while pot sales take off

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - As we near the end of 2017, Hawaii News Now is taking a look back at the biggest stories that emerged over the course of a turbulent year for Hawaii.

We lost an airline in Hawaii in 2017, and we got a whole new business – medical marijuana. Business is about change, and there was a lot of that.

Island Air died of debt, and it died suddenly. Owing millions in lease payments, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to stop the planes' owners from repossessing them.

But then it found itself with insufficient funds to keep flying and the company lurched into a hasty Chapter 7 liquidation. Employees lost wages, their medical coverage, and even the option of continuing coverage on their own dime.

For some Island Air employees there was a silver lining. Many found their skills in demand, and job fairs especially for them were held by several companies, including some not in the airline business.

The new business of medical marijuana was a long time coming.

A generation ago it might have been assumed that the biggest obstacle to repeal of marijuana prohibition would be the perception of pot as a criminal substance. Instead, the testimony of some doctors, the prospect of profits and tax revenyes, and the examples of some other states, quickly reduced political and public opposition.

Instead, "medijuana" was delayed by delays in permit approvals and backlogs in supply testing. In 2017, pot retailers finally opened shops on Oahu and Maui, and more were set to open in 2018, including outlets on Kauai and the Big Island.

In the end the lab testing was a bragging point, a guarantee of quality – to sweeten the pot.

Another new business in Honolulu was the bicycle enterprise Biki, which put bikes all over town for rental. At year's end, people were still kicking the tires.

The big economic story in 2017 in terms of affecting the most people was the unexpected continuation of Hawaii's economic expansion. Because most expansion periods don't last more than six or seven years, some economists have been warning for years that the current uptrend will peak. So far, it hasn't.

In 2017, visitor spending topped $15 billion in 11 months, overtaking 12 months of visitor expenditures in 2016. Affordable jet fuel played a role in a 5% expansion of passenger airlift to Hawaii, and people kept buying tickets on those flights despite higher hotel rates. Those who could afford more, paid more. Those who couldn't, rented alternative lodging.

Unemployment fell to about 2% across much of the state. At year's end, five Hawaii banks voluntarily hiked their minimum wages to $15 an hour or more, acknowledging that wages need to improve to keep good people, a move that could also prolong the economic uptrend by giving people a little more spending power.

There were great charitable gifts in 2017, but none more majestic than that of commercial real estate magnate Jay Shidler. The UH alumus had already given the business schools enough millions to put his name on the building. Now he gave the school land, and buildings on the land, a continuing source of income.

Nonprofit developments included Kamehameha Schools giving financial and structural nourishment to budding farmers, an agricultural analog to business incubators, and a good news story to offset the 2016 closure of the Maui sugar plantation. Alexander & Baldwin spent 2017 looking for diversified agriculture to use some of the same land. And a startup called Smart Yields offered farmers a way to monitor and control irrigation and fertigation using in-field monitors and a smart phone.

Patrick Oki was sentenced to prison time in 2017. Once a partner in PKF Hawaii and a prominent member of the business community, he embezzled by faking clients, showed no remorse, and indeed acted like he was owed what he stole. In the end the remaining partners felt the need to change the name of the firm.

Every year brings tradition, in business as in life, and in 2017 we lost Ono Hawaiian Foods, Itsu's Fishing Supplies, Maui Pasta Company, Sarento's, Shorebirds, the Pineapple Room, Kincaid's, Ryan's, and indeed the whole of Ward Warehouse. But Dunkin' Donuts returned.

Business stories don't always fit neatly into fiscal years. Molokai Ranch was put on the market in 2017 but a new owner will wait for the new year. The redevelopment of Kakaako continues. People are paying millions to buy luxury townhomes literally built on the parking at Ala Moana Center.

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