LA'IE -- Living in this North Shore town is like living on a neighbor island.
La'ie's first traffic light, now two years old, is still considered big news.
"That's the good thing about living here," said Ray Magalei, who recently moved back from San Francisco because he wanted to raise his family the way he grew up. "You can go away and come back, and it's almost like you never left."
As the community gathers this month for the La'ie Days summer festival that celebrates its heritage, longtimers say they are honoring a tradition of living by a moral code.
La'ie is home to 6,100 people -- 90 percent of whom are members of the Church of Jesus Christ, historically known as Mormons.
The church, which bought La'ie in 1865, has transformed the sugar plantation into a place with a world-famous temple, a university with an enrollment of 2,200 and the Polynesian Cultural Center, Hawai'i's No. 1 paid tourist attraction.
La'ie's growth has stalled in recent years, but it continues to be a draw for Polynesians from all over the Pacific who come to get an education at Brigham Young University. About 600 students work at PCC in exchange for tuition.
The center is nearing its 40th birthday and is undergoing a $2.8 million face-lift that will open one-third of PCC free to the public. The rest of the town is on the brink of development as well. The church is working on a bike path that will link La'ie to neighboring communities. It also is planning to hand utilities and roads back to the city and county of Honolulu, because incorporating La'ie as its own city appears to be an unlikely option.
"You're probably going to see La'ie change more in the next 10 years than it has in the last 25 or 30 years," said Blaine Jacobson, vice president of marketing at PCC, who first came as a missionary in 1974.
Some welcome the growth.
"Sometimes it annoys me that you have to drive 45 minutes just to get to a Wal-Mart or anything other than Foodland," said Julie Jorgensen, 22, a BYU student from San Diego. "It's both sheltered and like a small town, but it doesn't fit the small-town stereotype."
Church owns land
La'ie is a town in transition, said Jack Hoag, former president of First Hawaiian Bank, now president and chairman of the board of Hawai'i Reserves, Inc., the church's property manager.
The Church of Jesus Christ, which claims 55,000 members in Hawai'i, owns more than $200 million in land value alone in the state, and 90 percent of it is in La'ie.
For years, the church has taken a custodial role, handling the community's water, sewers and roads independently.
That is changing, Hoag said.
The sewer system is in good enough shape that the county can take it over, he said. And Mayor Jeremy Harris has helped the evolution by approving road improvements, Hoag said.
The church also is dropping the role of landlord as it offers more homes for sale to residents. Most of the oceanfront properties in La'ie are privately owned. La'ie lost 826 people in the 2000 census, compared with a decade ago, and some families moved to a new subdivision in the neighboring community of Kahuku. New housing is next on the list for La'ie, Hoag said.
"The community badly needs some additional housing," he said. "We certainly hope to get some homes built in the next five years."
Liz Requilman, 33, owner of Royal Cleaners & Tuxedo Rental in La'ie, said while her family moved to the new subdivision in Kahuku, La'ie is still a place where everybody knows her name.
"As soon as you pass Kane'ohe, you can just feel the air changes," she said. "You can just feel you're in country."
People in La'ie tend to give the church credit for the peaceful atmosphere and for success.
Wendy Lau, owner of Rainbow Balloons & Flowers, makes PCC luau centerpieces once a week and said PCC keeps her in business.
"Because of the center, my leis have gone on kings, queens, prime ministers, administrators, presidents," she said. "I've been really lucky."
Kela Miller, an original PCC performer, said she could count block-by-block who is a Church of Jesus Christ member. She says it adds to the feeling of 'ohana.
Even for people who didn't grow up Mormon, the church influence is strong, said Dorene Payton, 47, a kindergarten teacher at La'ie Elementary and a Methodist.
She shops around the town's built-in schedule.
"The only thing that's open on Sunday in La'ie is McDonald's," she said.
Tourists can buy beverages containing caffeine in town these days, but they still can't buy Mai Tais at lu'aus.
Craig Huish, general manager of Best Inn Hukilau Resort, the only hotel, likes his town with no bars.
"We're all of like values. We don't have a lot of riffraff."
Huish is open to changes that would return tax dollars and services to people, such as incorporating La'ie as its own city.
Mike Foley, spokesman for Hawai'i Reserves, Inc., and editorial chairman for the community newspaper, doesn't think incorporating is realistic. What's more likely, he said, is people will enforce a plan to increase affordable housing, control flooding and keep the flavor of their faith.
That's what Iuga Laulu said she will be sorry to lose when her student visa runs out in 2003.
Laulu, 21, who works at PCC and lives in the BYU dorms, calls La'ie a "blessing" she will have to let go.
Time in La'ie also is fleeting for Si Tongi, 20, a biology student from New Zealand.
"It's just like family," Tongi said while he painted his face backstage before a performance. "It's really close-knit."
For Mele Nunia Ongoongotau, staying in La'ie has meant coming to terms with its pace.
She was 38 when she arrived from Tonga. Now, at 61, she fashions fabric into Hawaiian quilts while tourists take pictures.
She has come to feel at home, she said, because she shares the same life philosophy as her neighbors.
"There is a moral code," she said. "It's the first thing that makes me comfortable."
Missionaries and tourists
Missionaries in La'ie come and go, and the tourists are peripheral. The heart of the town is like the quilters who follow old patterns and the fishermen who cast out nets the same way they always have.
The tradition will continue Saturday with a hukilau shoreline party, an event near the end of the La'ie Days festivities.
Legend has it that the hukilau spirit lives because of the help the community gave in 1940 after a fire destroyed a chapel and church members formed a hukilau to rebuild it.
Volunteers included Hamana Kalili, a plantation worker who has three fingers missing on his right hand because of an accident with a cane press. Kalili was known for his signature wave, his thumb and pinky, which came to be known as the shaka. He also is said to be the fisherman who lent his net for the party.
These days, life in La'ie is a little bit bigger. It's also full of shakas and hukilau like the one made famous in a 1940s hula tune still strummed in these parts:
"What a beautiful day for fishin',
"In the old Hawaiian way,
"Where the hukilau net we're swishin',
"Down at old La'ie bay."
Ioane Tongi, foreground, and Tofia Kavapalu, both freshman at Brigham Young University-Hawai'i, prepare for an afternoon show at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Monique Amasino gets ready for the next performance at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Church of Jesus Christ Elder Robert Standing, far left, visits with a family of Vietnamese tourists at the La'ie Hawaii Temple. The visitor center provides materials in more than 30 languages.