A Positive Outlook
In these challenging times, director of the county Office of Economic Development George Costa is taking his responsibilities in stride
Responsible for keeping the island’s economic wheels spinning, George Costa, director of Kaua’i County’s Office of Economic Development, is an encyclopedia of financial knowledge. Rarely missing an opportunity to learn about community matters, he takes the acquired information and applies it to work-force development, boosting tourism and improving the sustainable energy sector.
What he considers his most accomplished achievement since landing his current position in 2008 is the acquisition and application of the $1 million visitor industry stimulus plan.
“That was pretty bold to come in fresh off the boat and ask for a million dollars,” he says.
Originally planning to ask for $500,000 to help promote island tourism, Costa valiantly proposed $1 million thinking he might actually end up with half.
“I never expected the whole thing,” he admits.
But he’s glad the County Council approved as much as it did.
“Back then, we were falling so fast,” says Costa regarding the visitor industry’s 2008 economic woes. “We felt, let’s just stop the bleeding. If we could just remain flat, that would be a good thing.”
The island lost 30 percent of its visitor arrivals in 2008 and 2009.
However, he notes, the stimulus and its marketing efforts were accountable for increasing visitor arrivals at least 4 percent in 2010.
According to Costa, a stable visitor industry is necessary for an ideal island economy.
But even though tourism is the island’s bread and butter, it is not his only focus.
Diversifying the island’s economy, including advancing energy efficiency, is another of Costa’s long-term economic stability goals. Installing more photovoltaic systems across the island and investing in hydropower, “as long as the in-flow is not destroying our native aquatic species,” are keys that would unlock energy selfsufficiency and economic balance.
“I’d really like to see Kaua’i become more independent and not rely on fossil fuels,” he says.
Prior to being tapped by Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho Jr. to fill the position he holds, Costa worked his way through the hotel industry ranks. After earning his degree in business administration from Pacific University in Oregon in 1976, Costa found his way back home to Kaua’i and immediately started working at Coco Palms Resort.
“I was there during what I consider the heydays, especially in the ’70s,” says Costa. “Tourism was booming, and back then it was only the Coco Palms and Kaua’i Surf, which is now the Marriott.”
He was the resort’s night auditor for three years, working the graveyard shift. But Costa, who with wife Chrystal has two children, Pua’ahi, 32, and Alohi, 25, and two grandchildren, Pua’ena, 13, and Kaynan, 5, felt that if he ever wanted to raise a family, he would need to enter into the daylight-hour work force.
So he spent a year and a half traveling the state as part of a hotel managementtraining program.
“You pretty much learn the hotel industry inside-out,” he says.
Costa returned to Coco Palms Resort as assistant manager, and by 1987, the year he left the hotel, he was director of rooms.
The experience was unforgettable, from meeting celebrities such as Dustin Hoffman to listening to co-workers teasing him, the “rookie” at the time, with spooky stories.
“The hair on the back of my head would stand up at certain places at certain times,” he says of working alone at the resort as night auditor.
Costa hopes to see the now-decrepit 400-room hotel that was blasted by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 transformed into a reflection of what it once was.
“I really wish it would be, maybe not as big as it was, but some kind of resort to captivate the torch-lighting ceremony,” he says, reminiscing of the days when Grace Guslander owned the hotel and used it as a vehicle to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture. The local culture is something Costa is very familiar with, having spent much time with his Hawaiian grandmother, Julia Rodrigues, helping her sort mail at the Hanalei Post Office where she served as postmistress.
Though he was born on Oahu, where his father was stationed at Schofield Barracks, Costa moved to Kaua’i with his parents, George Costa Jr. and Sunshyne, at the age of 1. He has three brothers, Byron “Kaina,” Ian and Evan. A 1972 graduate of Kapa’a High School, Costa lived in Wailua, but spent weekends as a child in Hanalei, of which he holds many fond memories, including spending time on Hanalei pier.
“It was the place for a lot of kids to hang out,” he recalls.
People used to gather around the pier and fish for aweoweo.
“There used to be schools of fish all around the pier. The whole community would be out there for days with their bamboo poles,” he says.
One memory that gets Costa chuckling is fetching his grandfather, Vincent Rodrigues, out of the area now known as Black Pot. It was a place where men would hide out in the “hao jungle,” cooking kalua pig, cabbage and stew.
“He loved his beer,” says Costa, a formerly avid surfer who hopes to get back in the water soon. “He never wanted to go.”
It still gives him chicken skin to remember those days when the pots of food, black from kerosene, hung on the edges of the hao bush hale giving the spot its current nickname.
Costa, whose great-great-grandfather was Thomas Boothe Cummings, is proud of his family’s rich island history.
“Most of the Cummings’ are talented musicians,” says Costa, who attended Kamehameha Schools until he became “too independent,” encouraging his parents to bring him back home to keep an eye on him. “I’m part of the family who listens to music. I don’t play music, but I appreciate it. That part of the gene pool didn’t come to me.”
His talent is apparently in the visitor industry. Following his time at Coco Palms Resort, Costa stayed within the field, working various positions in the condominium and timeshare side of tourism as well. He was employed as the director of business development with RCI Management, and as regional manager for timeshares at The Point at Poipu, and most recently general manager of Hilton Kaua’i (now Kaua’i Beach Resort).
Though he has learned much in his position at the helm of the Office of Economic Development, Costa admits there is still plenty to take in.
“It’s overwhelming,” he says.
But nothing deters his positive outlook. Though the financial days of living “fat and sassy” from 2004 to 2007 are gone, he is encouraged by economic changes for the better, including an increasing awareness of locally grown products and energy self-sufficiency, a declining unemployment rate and just learning to “live within our means.”