STAR-BULLETIN / 2002
Poor maintenance of the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor is forcing many boat owners to move. It's also keeping potential visitors away from the Waikiki facility.
That sinking feeling
The Ala Wai Boat Harbor is collapsing under incompetent oversight
IMAGINE a marina filled with boats -- small motor boats and sailboats costing a few thousand dollars, larger offshore fishing and cruising boats, and even a few megayachts worth tens of millions of dollars. The docks of this marina are well maintained and secure, and they are filled with the bustle of an active harbor. On shore, dozens of businesses provide services ranging from ice and soda for the day's sail to steel and fiberglass fabrication and repair.
Such marinas exist all over the world, some even on Oahu. But the Ala Wai Boat Harbor is not one of them. During the last 20 years, the state-run Ala Wai Harbor has fallen into complete disrepair. For many years, there has been essentially no maintenance to docks or other facilities. As a result, more than 100 dock spaces are now unusable. Recently, Ala Wai tenants received notices from Department of Land and Natural Resources that another 200 slips (spaces for boats) would be condemned; nearly half of all the slips in the harbor will now be lost, as well as all slips for visiting vessels.
This is an absurd situation. The Ala Wai Boat Harbor is located in one of the most desirable locations of any harbor in the world -- in the heart of Waikiki, within easy walking distance of almost every major attraction and hotel. Urban marinas in other major cities generate significant income and are showplaces for their cities. Here in Honolulu, the situation is reversed; what should be a destination and a major fundraising source is instead a derelict eyesore.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lee Maxwell works on the maintenance of his 31-foot sloop, "Hokuao." Maxwell has been a tenant at the Ala Wai Boat Harbor for 20 years.
Ed McLaughlin, a veteran Pacific cruiser and delivery captain who recently sailed to Honolulu, feels that the state docks at the Ala Wai might well be "in worse shape than any others I've ever seen, even in Third World countries."
The deterioration and condemnation of so many slips at the Ala Wai small boat harbor already has hurt Honolulu. The prestigious TransPacific ocean race (now in its 44th running) and the Kenwood Cup sailing regatta have been downsized due to a lack of dock space in the Ala Wai, and the income and exposure those events bring to Hawaii have been greatly reduced. In addition, the situation at the Ala Wai harbor has been extensively covered in the national and international boating press, further lowering the number of boats traveling to Hawaii.
At home, the effects are even worse. Hawaii already has the lowest boat ownership per capita of any state in the nation. The closure of these slips at the Ala Wai (as well as similar slip closures at Keehi Lagoon small boat harbor and elsewhere) denies access to the ocean for hundreds of our residents, as well as endangering the marine service businesses that depend on these boaters for their income.
As Tom Bashaw, president of the Ala Wai Yacht Brokerage, points out, "Diesel mechanics, electronics, painting, marine plumbers, refrigeration technicians, rigging specialists, fuel distributors, welders, fabricators, outboard engine technicians, rigging specialists, sail makers and yacht brokers, just to name a few, all support their families in this specialized industry, and they pay taxes to boot."
The closure of slips in the Ala Wai and throughout the state endangers these local businesses. Moreover, the potential income that a world-class marina in the Ala Wai would yield is lost.
The causes of the disintegration of the Ala Wai Boat Harbor are easy to discern. First and foremost, all income from slip rentals from throughout the state goes into a special fund. That fund has not returned enough money to the individual harbors for even basic maintenance, much less upgrading and expansion. The floating docks in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor are actually designed to be replaced in small, inexpensive sections as needed, but such a system works only if money is spent every year on replacing damaged sections -- something that has not been done. A constant and significantly higher rate of expenditure is needed to cover basic running costs.
Secondly, the rental fees for space at the Ala Wai are too low. At the Ala Wai, a boat owner pays $4.10 per foot per month for a slip; the owner of a 25-foot boat would pay $102. A quick survey of marina slip rates in the San Francisco Bay area shows an average rate of $8 per foot per month, making the "market" rental for a 25-foot boat $200 per month. Those rates do not include the extra charge for living aboard -- in many cases, another $4 per foot per month, raising the fees for a 25-foot boat to $300 per month.
Closer to home, the new and very definitely world-class Ko Olina Marina at Barbers Point charges between $11.78 and $26 per foot per month and is fully occupied. A small fee increase for state harbors has been approved, but that increase (28 percent at the Ala Wai Boat Harbor) will not cover expenses and has never been implemented. Without significant fee increases, perhaps as much as 100 percent over current rates, DLNR cannot fund harbor renovations.
There are simple solutions to the ongoing loss of boat space.
» Fees for slip rentals must be increased. As the DLNR's unimplemented fee schedule recognizes, the Ala Wai Boat Harbor should have the highest fees in the state, as it has the most desirable location. Properly priced -- that is, at rates similar to those in other urban "destination" marinas -- Ala Wai slip rentals could generate enough income to subsidize every other state small boat harbor while also providing for the Ala Wai's own needs.
However, as state Sen. Gordon Trimble says, "Raising rates will not ensure that money is spent for maintenance of the Ala Wai harbor -- it will just enable the cash cow's milk to be spilled elsewhere."
» To avoid this outcome, the state Legislature must mandate that DLNR return a minimum percentage of income received from the state boat harbors to those harbors every year, and require that those funds be used for continuing maintenance and long-term facilities improvement. It is the responsibility of the Legislature and the Executive to oversee state agencies and ensure their proper functioning. Without this oversight, the state boat harbor situation will not improve.
If the political will to take these steps is lacking, there is a second option: privatize the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. A contract giving a private marina management company the right to run the Ala Wai Boat Harbor while the state receives either a flat fee or a percentage of the net income would provide the state with substantial revenue and resurrect the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, all at no cost to taxpayers.
There is a third option -- do nothing and let the infrastructure continue to crumble. Without resolute action from the Legislature and the Executive, the DLNR will not be able to improve this situation. The state does not need to spend money from other sources on the state small boat harbors; proper fee structures and funds distribution will enable the self-funding of the entire renovation project. There are not a lot of problems in Hawaii that can be so easily fixed -- let's fix this one!
Peter Webb is an avid boater who lives in Honolulu.