Wahiawa, once a global agricultural center and now a down-on-its-heels urban hub in the middle of Oahu, has an important benefactor: Hawaii Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, the often controversial chairman of the state’s powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Ambitious and determined, creative with a well-earned reputation for political tenacity, Dela Cruz has made delivering an economic lifeline to Wahiawa his personal crusade.
In the past 10 years, Dela Cruz has funneled almost $400 million in development funds to the community that has been his family’s home for three generations, ever since his grandfather immigrated there from the Philippines in 1940 and went to work on a pineapple plantation.
He loves the place. Born at Wahiawa General Hospital, he grew up in plantation housing in the town’s Whitmore Village, a housing complex where Dole pineapple workers once lived in ethnically differentiated compounds, creating a melange of cultures. He talks about those early years fondly, recalling nostalgically how the fathers marched off together to work in the morning when the plantation bell rang.
“My blood is pineapple juice,” he said in a recent interview, explaining how important it is to him to restore the area’s agricultural vitality.
After attending public school in Wahiawa and graduating from the University of Oregon, Dela Cruz joined the Wahiawa Neighborhood Board, serving three years and rising to the chairmanship. At age 30, in November 2002, he was elected to the Honolulu City Council, representing Wahiawa, and within 10 months, he had been elected chair. Eight years later, he was elected to represent Wahiawa’s Senate District 22.
Again, he rose quickly. In a shake-up over Honolulu rail funding in 2017, he displaced Jill Tokuda and took her seat as chair of the Ways and Means Committee, a post that permits the holder to determine the fate of any bill with a financial component.
Dela Cruz’s goal since then has been to bring money, jobs, agricultural revitalization and economic development back to Wahiawa, a place that has suffered economically since the pineapple industry collapsed in the 1970s.
Standing on the upper floor of Wahiawa Transit Center on a recent sunny morning, Dela Cruz gestured in all directions describing his vision. He pointed to the downtown, where he sees a cluster of impressive new buildings that he hopes will bring bustle and life back to the town center, and out to Whitmore Village, about 1.5 miles away by road. He is planning a $27 million pedestrian bridge that will give Whitmore Village residents easy access to that more vibrant downtown.
In the past decade, the state has spent $100 million to buy more than 3,000 acres of farmland in the Wahiawa area to protect it from encroaching development and preserve it for agricultural uses. One specific venture, the Whitmore Project, includes food processing operations, agricultural warehouse space, a greenhouse and a centralized kitchen for preparing school meals for the Department of Education.
To make sure the water supply is adequate for what he has in store, Dela Cruz has secured $13.5 million for a wastewater reclamation system in town.
He has championed these expenditures because he believes the state has to take steps to foster farm production. He is convinced that a strong agricultural base is crucial to Hawaii’s survival.
“Agriculture is under duress — it is competing with energy farms, it is competing with gentlemen farms, and it is just losing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dela Cruz is remaking Wahiawa’s downtown. The blocks on California Avenue, between Muliwai Avenue and Plum Street, bounded to the north by the hospital and Wahiawa Shopping Center on the south, will look very different when he is done.
“I think he is doing what somebody in his position should be doing for his constituents. These are all things worth admiration in leadership.” — Economist Paul Brewbaker
The project that is furthest along to completion is the $16 million Wahiawa Value-Added Product Development Center, located on the former site of Tamura’s warehouse at California and Plum. It’s designed as an incubator for Hawaii-based food entrepreneurism, where students will learn the ropes of running their own businesses and where novice business owners will be able to rent equipment to speed up and streamline production of locally made agricultural products. It is expected to be completed by early next year.
The author of three books on Hawaiian food, Dela Cruz believes there is significant potential for growth in marketing Hawaii-made farm products. He isn’t certain just which new agricultural products can replace pineapples, but he hopes the new center will help find the answer.
Close behind on the path toward construction is the Wahiawa Civic Center, a $48 million complex that will feature a new District Court building and state and city facilities, including a satellite city hall, a driver’s license customer center and a raft of health and welfare agencies. It will serve as a consolidated government service center for central Oahu and the North Shore.
Dela Cruz thinks it will open in spring 2026.
Next door to the Civic Center another building will rise, at a cost estimated at $42.5 million. Labeled the Center for Excellence, it will encompass a new library to replace the existing one, along with the addition of satellite community college classrooms and office space for the Department of Education.
Dela Cruz’s earliest project, adjacent to the civic center and on the other side of it, was completed 11 years ago. The Wahiawa Transit Center, completed in 2011 at a cost of $5.6 million, is a bus depot and transportation staging area with 58 parking stalls for commuters. Dela Cruz pushed for it when he was on the City Council.
The transit center was a particularly important early initiative for him. In his childhood, Dela Cruz was frequently under the care of his grandmother, who did not own a car, so he would accompany her on the bus as she traveled from spot to spot to pay household bills in person. That was part of the reason, he says, that he became an early supporter of a centralized place for buses to stop as they criss-crossed the island.
His efforts in raising money for Wahiawa’s interests have won him respect and appreciation from onlookers and his constituents.
“I give him credit for what he’s done,” said Larry Meacham, a Wahiawa resident and vocal community advocate, noting that Wahiawa is one of the poorest districts on the island and needs money for economic development. “It’s very good.”
Dela Cruz has always been very devoted to Wahiawa and his actions have demonstrated his loyalty to his hometown, said Ann Kobayashi, who served on the City Council with him.
“He lives there, his family lived there,” she said. “Most of us move. He’s never moved from Wahiawa.”
Economist Paul Brewbaker, who has worked with Dela Cruz, said the senator should be given credit for thinking inventively.
“He works for his constituents, he takes chances,” Brewbaker said. “He goes down the unpaved road and gives it a shot. I think he is doing what somebody in his position should be doing for his constituents. These are all things worth admiration in leadership.”
But Dela Cruz has attracted detractors and skeptics as well, though few are willing to criticize him on the record. In May, for example, Dela Cruz used some questionable legislative footwork to stifle several bills sponsored by a Big Island lawmaker who had opposed energy legislation Dela Cruz sought and, in the end, Dela Cruz prevailed. It was a stark power play that caught attention.
Others, including economists at UHERO, the University of Hawaii’s economic research unit, have questioned whether it is possible or cost effective for the state to try to jump start its farm industry in this manner.
There is no question, however, that Wahiawa could use some targeted help. The median income in Wahiawa, according to recent census figures, is $69,818, compared to $81,627 in Haleiwa, $101,517 in Pearl City and $122,706 in Kailua. About a fifth of Wahiawa’s population gets food stamps. More than a quarter of the town’s children live in poverty.
The Dela Cruz family arrived in Wahiawa’s heyday, when the town served as the home of a global pineapple empire. That makes the decline all the more pointed to long-time residents, and the search for solutions more urgent.
The boom started more than 100 years ago when a group of California homesteaders and businessman James Dole, second cousin to Hawaii Gov. Sanford B. Dole, converged on Wahiawa. Dole established a cannery and packing plant there. He pioneered new methods to peel and core pineapples, and, in a nationwide advertising campaign, established Hawaii-grown pineapples as a distinct product brand.
Other pineapple-based businesses clustered in Wahiawa as well, and the industry spread all over the islands, second only to sugar cane in size. Wahiawa became the second-largest city in the islands, after Honolulu. In its golden era, Wahiawa had considerable old-style Hawaiian charm and boasted two hotels, two theaters, a department store, a railroad station and a dense cluster of shops owned by local business people.
By 1950, 72% of the world’s pineapple production came from Hawaii. At its peak, the pineapple industry employed some 12,000 people in the islands with eight separate processing plants. Pineapple was a source of civic pride in Wahiawa.
Life was not easy for the plantation workers, who worked long hours under the hot sun for low pay. Cannery work could be dangerous. But pineapple industry prosperity and paternalistic employment practices gave workers economic security, health insurance and stable housing.
That all ended when the United States eased trade protections, allowing globalization to bring foreign pineapple to the American market. In 1972, pineapple workers in Hawaii earned from $2.64 to $3.69 an hour, at a time that workers in the Philippines and Taiwan received 8 cents to 24 cents an hour. Hawaii-based pineapple companies shifted most of their production overseas.
This decline coincided with Dela Cruz’s childhood. He has chronicled the town’s past, with sites that he watched disappear one by one, replaced by fast-food chains and gas stations, in a walking historical trail map of the city, illustrated with 27 vintage photographs of the old-school buildings that were demolished.
Hawaii’s mistake was not coming up with a plan in the 1980s and 1990s to replace the declining agricultural economy, Dela Cruz says, adding that instead the state allowed itself to become dependent on tourism. This caused real damage to many small towns around the islands, including places like Wahiawa, he said.
“Certain small towns got screwed, they got shafted,” he said.
Compounding the problem was the loss of leadership in rural areas, where many aspects of social and economic life had been determined by plantation overseers known as lunas, whose roles included not just supervising work but also making sure communities were well-maintained and basic needs were met.
“We used to have ad hoc mayors,” Dela Cruz said. “They were the lunas. Now whose kuleana is it to help communities thrive?”
He thinks he knows the answer. Wahiawa has a new luna, and his name is Donovan Dela Cruz.
“Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.
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