Hawaii Island businesses ‘somber’ over TMT stalemate at Mauna Kea

Hawaii island businesses ‘somber’ over TMT stalemate at Mauna Kea

HILO, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii island’s business community says they’re spooked by what could be an economic warning sign.

Rhea Lee-Moku, president of Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, says someone in the astronomy industry recently pulled out of escrow for a home because of concerns about the future.

As the stalemate over the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea drags on, she described the overall mood among businesses as “pretty somber.”

She added that others in the astronomy industry have stopped looking for permanent homes.

“We are concerned enough to say hey, is this a sign that there will be more impact to the real estate industry, for instance, and what other industries will be affected?” she said.

Officials with Maunakea Observatories also worry about the future of the astronomy industry in Hawaii. They say astronomy sustains 500 employees and 500 related jobs.

As part of the UH Board of Regents newly-approved stewardship resolution, five telescopes atop Mauna Kea will be removed.

Caltech Submillimeter Observatory and Hokukea are to be decommissioned by December 31, 2021 and three others by January 2026 ― even with no guarantee TMT will be built.

“These decommissionings are contingent on TMT coming to the mauna. This decouples the closure of additional working facilities from the arrival of TMT," said Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory and James Clerk Maxwell Telescope.

“With TMT so uncertain, we could end up in the place where we lose five additional facilities.”

But during a marathon UH Board of Regents meeting on Wednesday, many expressed their pain over how Mauna Kea has been managed in previous years.

“You gave the astronomers a dollar lease and my keiki have debt. They work hard and they’re proud of who they are,” said one testifier.

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, one of the leaders of the Kiai ― who call themselves protectors and not protesters at Mauna Kea ― believes TMT’s economic benefits are “grossly overstated.”

“That’s chicken feed. I’m sorry. That’s not going to provide the benefit, the overall benefit to our community,” she said.

While the other telescopes pay $1 lease rent, TMT’s lease rent would be $1 million per year when it’s operational.

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