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Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Wednesday, October 4, 2000

Grass is greener
at Ala Wai

A municipal golf course catering to a relatively small number of regular golfers in the heart of some of the most expensive property in the world is an extravagance whose time to go has come.

The Ala Wai golf course's claim to fame is not that it is especially beautiful or noteworthy from a design perspective, but that it is cheap and handy.

When I first heard Gov. Ben Cayetano's plan to close the Ala Wai I had the same sentimental gut reaction that a lot of residents had, especially those who have played the course. It's a landmark. It's the most heavily played golf course in the country, if not the world. It's the home of many seniors who have made it a gathering place for decades.

But the truth is that while the Ala Wai is heavily played, it's heavily played by a closed group of regulars, some of whom secured treasured early tee times for years by bribing the starters. The little guys were pushed aside and put on long waiting lists for starting times while politicians and other connected players magically got to tee off whenever they wanted. The starting system was so corrupt that a special phone-in scheme eventually was instituted, but even that didn't stop the bribery and favoritism.

The starting-time shenanigans were not exactly a well-kept secret. When the police finally got around to investigating the situation this summer, it took them about a minute and a half to bust two of the starters for bribery.

In the dirty world of government corruption, the starting-time scandal was tiny, dirt-under-the-fingernails kind of stuff compared to, say, the Ewa Villages caper where city workers raked in tens of thousands of dollars.

But corruption at the Ala Wai isn't a reason to close it. If that were the criteria, half of the city's services would have been closed over the past many years.

It should be closed because it's not the best use of the land. Opening a new municipal course at Sand Island would satisfy the "cheap and handy" needs of Honolulu golfers. And it would leave us in an incredible position of having nearly 150 acres of green space that could be developed into parks and recreational facilities.

That's the ideal. Unfortunately, there is a cringe factor associated with any large-scale development of government property: It tends to bring out the worst in people. (See: Kukui Plaza bribery scandal; Ewa Villages embezzlement enterprise; rusty Aloha Stadium fiasco.)

The trick to successfully redeveloping the Ala Wai golf course property will be to keep it from becoming a massive payoff to buddies of politicians. There'll be so much drooling over that land that the water level in the Ala Wai Canal will be raised by a foot.

Instead of merely creating a park system that can be used by everyone, there'll be pressure to Disney-fy the canal waterfront on the golf course side with tacky shops and chain stores. There'll be proposals to fill the canal with gondolas and little pedal-powered boats for the tourists. Don't be surprised if someone even suggests erecting that enormous ferris wheel they wanted to put at Waterfront Park. We face a tough fight against the forces of tacky.

But time is on our side. Honolulu is in the inviable position of having inadvertently land-banked a pristine piece of property in the heart of the city. Let's not blow it.

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

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