HILO — The number of building permits issued on the Big Island is up so far this year, putting it on track to end six years of decline.
Hawaii County has issued 2,089 building permits as of July 31, compared with 1,798 during the same time period last year.
The difference, while relatively small, points to the first possible uptick in construction activity since 2005 when a record 5,663 permits were approved. Year-to-year comparisons have been on a downward trend ever since.
But county Public Works Director Warren Lee warns the numbers may be misleading.
For the first time, the county late last year began requiring building permits for installing solar panels on residences.
Lee said he accounts that requirement for much of the increase, adding he sees construction remaining relatively flat.
“The demand for permits really is in the photovoltaic area,” he said.
The estimated value of the building projects receiving permits during that time period increased from $210.5 million in 2011 to $223.8 million this year.
The number of permits issued for electrical and plumbing work dropped though the estimated value of their projects increased.
The county issued 2,268 electrical permits during that time period last year compared to 1,936 this year. The estimated value of the projects increased from $44.7 million to $68.9 million.
There were 1,251 plumbing permits issued from January 2011 through July 31, 2011, and 822 for the first seven months this year. The estimated value of those projects increased from $10.6 million to $32.6 million.
Craig Takamine, Hawaii Island Contractors’ Association president, said he believes the economy is improving.
“I think we already hit the bottom and we can see some sort of recovery,” he said. “It’s not going to be as sharp … we’re not going to see the economy pick up as fast as it slowed down.”
New home construction remains low, a remnant of the recession, but jobs at commercial buildings are increasing, Takamine said. “It seems like there’s been a lot more activity on that end.”
Unemployment in the construction sector remains high, with joblessness ranging from roughly 75 percent on the windward side to up to 90 percent on the leeward side, said Dean Au, the Hilo field representative for the Hawaii Region Council of Carpenters.
Au was less optimistic about commercial jobs but he noted publicly funded projects, a primary source of employment for the union members, appear to be on the rise.
He said some members have gotten work revamping rooms at hotels, some of which have taken advantage of drops in occupancy to renovate.
Overall, jobs for private-sector construction remains low, Au said.
“The government seems like it’s doing their part and now we need the private sector to step up to the plate,” he said.