Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Monday, January 25, 1999

in dollars

ALL of you who were surprised that the cost of the Waikiki Natatorium restoration almost doubled as soon as it was approved by the City Council, raise your coloring books and crayons.

Would anyone but a child of 5 actually believe that you could build a major swimming facility right on the ocean's edge for less than $20 million?

Come on. This is the same state that built a rusting money vacuum called Aloha Stadium and cur-rently is reconstructing the world's most expensive softball field. And those were on dry land.

But Mayor Jeremy Harris' pro-Natatorium forces somehow bamboozled six out of nine members of the City Council into approving a "complete renovation" of the venerable war memorial for the bargain basement price of $11 million.

There's always a certain amount of self-deception that goes into approving a major building project, whether it's a highway or a bus stop. Everyone knows that the figures thrown out during the approval phase are fanciful hopeful guesses designed mainly to win the public over. You don't want to come up with a number that is going to make people's eyes pop out of their heads. The trick is to float a figure that is vaguely believable to help folks take that first, crucial psychological step of getting on board the project. Once they are on board, then you can crank up the volume ... slowly.

That's not what happened with the Natatorium. The $11 million figure seemed on the high side from the get-go. Especially during a down economy and double especially for a project of marginal worth. As I've said before, there was a time when building a swimming pool near the ocean made sense, back in the days before the Army Corps of Grumpy and Quarrelsome Engineers was around to hassle you about currents, tides, reef life and the joys of building on a sand foundation. Today, you can't pitch a tent on the beach without conducting an environmental impact study and getting personal approval of Al Gore.

NEVERTHELESS, enough Council members fell for the Natatorium restoration fiction to approve it. Then, instead of slowly raising the price tag based on all kinds of "unforeseen" problems, the winning bidder already has cranked up the price to more than $18 million. That's enough money to choke a horse and, apparently, Council Chairman Mufi Hannemann, who thinks the whole deal might need to be reevaluated.

I was stunned, not by the less-than-surprising revelation that the price nearly doubled, but at the honesty of the builder to 'fess up so early in the game.

I have no idea how this will turn out. But I know this: if the Natatorium is renovated, it will be nothing like what most people think it will be. It won't be the Natatorium of the old days with kids splashing in the ocean and then playing in the pool. It will be a concession you'll probably have to pay to enter and its day-to-day operations will have nothing to do with the memory of veterans. Tourists will avoid it, because they don't fly 3,000 miles to get in a pool any more than we'd fly to Chicago to see a coconut tree.

I again cast my vote for renovating the memorial archway and returning the beach to its natural state. The purpose of the memorial is for people to pause and remember those who gave their lives for our country. You can do that by saving the dramatic arch. You don't need a swimming pool, hamburger stand and volleyball court.

Some say tearing down the memorial will cost as much as renovating it. Maybe. But the renovation is just the beginning of endless costs of upkeep (see: Aloha Stadium rust repair bill). The beauty of tearing it down is that you only have to do it once.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802

or send E-mail to charley@nomayo.com or

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