Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Pearl Harbor
visitor plan to
address criticisms

Opponents maintain a retail center
has no place at a memorial

Officials planning a new visitor center for the USS Arizona Memorial promise to address concerns about the appropriateness of having a private, for-profit retail operation on Navy property near the center.

"There will be a lot of discussions on that subject coming up over the next several months," said George Sullivan, chairman of the Arizona Memorial Museum Association.

Sullivan spoke yesterday after providing members of the City Council with an update on plans to build a new visitor facility to replace the aging Pearl Harbor center that has sunk about 30 inches since opening in 1980.

The Pearl Harbor Memorial Fund, the fund-raising arm of the museum association, is asking the city for $1 million toward the development of a new visitors' center that's expected to open in 2008. An additional $7 million in state funds is being sought toward the memorial fund's overall goal of $34 million, the bulk of which is expected to come from private donations.

A new visitors' center is expected to serve as a "gateway" that would funnel tourists to the Arizona and the other visitor attractions at Pearl Harbor, Sullivan said.

Officials also would consider incorporating some of the commercial operations that are now being operated under a 5,000-square-foot tent on 6.6 acres between the Arizona and Bowfin memorials that was leased to a joint venture of Fluor Hawaii and Hunt Building Co.

The land was subleased to Pearl Harbor Visitor Center Inc., which has received mixed reviews since launching the retail venture in mid-December.

Critics, which include Pearl Harbor survivors, veterans' groups and members of Hawaii's congressional delegation, call the 1942-themed retail center too crass to be within a national park that honors the more than 2,000 people who died in the Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack by the Japanese that propelled the country into World War II.

Supporters, including some tourists, say the facility provides much-needed space for the roughly 1.5 million annual visitors, who often wait hours before boarding boats to the memorial.

"When we increase the size of the visitors' center, we would expand it into some of that area," Sullivan said. "Now it's a matter of figuring out an appropriate way to work with (Fluor and Hunt) to ensure that the visitors get the best out of their time there, and also that the for-profit concessions do not impinge on the profits of the nonprofit organizations that are there."

City Councilman Charles Djou said he doesn't necessarily object to the venture "as long as it enhances the visitor experience. Right now, I think the jury is still out as to how the visitors view that."

Some members of the state House disagree, and have introduced a nonbinding resolution that asks the Navy to remove the for-profit company and ensure that any future visitor center be nonprofit in nature.

House Vice Speaker K. Mark Takai, a sponsor of the resolution, criticized Pearl Harbor Visitor Center Chairman Patrick Brent for not working with existing nonprofit vendors before setting up the tent.

"They basically just came and bullied their way in, put this tent up and created some very difficult challenges," said Takai (D, Newtown-Pearl City).

Brent noted that the House resolution is nonbinding, saying "it has zero to do with any kind of reality."

He also noted that critics included potential competitors in the area who sell many of the same products as his vendors.

"We have the very first visitor center where people can have shelter and a warm meal, but they don't seem to want us in the neighborhood," he said.

A hearing on the resolution is scheduled tomorrow before the House Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee.

Among those who submitted testimony in support of the resolution was Glen Winterbottom, secretary and treasurer of the Arizona Memorial Defense Coordinating Committee.

The commercial venture "constitutes an unconscionable and shameful footnote to the Pearl Harbor saga," Winterbottom said. "Today it is the dignity and sanctity of this hallowed ground that is being threatened -- not by foreign enemies, but by brazen ... profiteers among us -- and this time around we have no excuse to be caught sleeping."

USS Arizona Memorial
Pearl Harbor Memorial Fund

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