This is an architect's drawing of a six-story building that would house a 500,000-gallon aquarium, plus 120,000 to 150,000 square feet of floor space and room for biotech research.

2 aquarium ideas
go forward, but is
that 1 too many?

A plan at Ko Olina is set for
$75 million in state tax credits,
while another looks at Kakaako

The state Legislature this year approved one new aquarium for Oahu, at Ko Olina, but spiked state support of a proposal for another in Kakaako.

However, the Kakaako developer said the project will proceed anyway, setting the scene for two new aquarium attractions to compete for visitors -- in addition to the Waikiki Aquarium and Sea Life Park -- all of which lead some to wonder whether Oahu will be drowning in fishy facilities.

Ko Olina developer Jeffrey Stone got 10 years of tax credits worth as much as $75 million for his vision on the shore of the Ko Olina Marina. But the Legislature did not approve a proposed issue of $40 million in special purpose revenue bonds to finance the construction of an aquarium and ocean science complex next to Kewalo Basin in Kakaako.

Stone proposes a world-class aquarium to act as a tourist draw that will encourage developers of hotels, time-share and shopping and entertainment complexes to come in and build.

It is now up to Gov. Linda Lingle to sign the tax-credit bill, let it become law without her signature or veto it. Her vocal support for the tax credit makes a veto unlikely.

But none of that is deterring the intended developer of the Kakaako project, KUD International, which remains "highly committed to this project," according to a Honolulu spokesman, David Wilson.

KUD, part of Japan-based construction giant Kajima Corp., said it is forging ahead with plans for the project.

Had enough of aquariums already? Both developers and tourism operators are betting you'll be in the minority.

"There's never enough good quality attractions, never enough new quality things," said Mike Carr, president of Polynesian Adventure Tours.

One factor is the increasing number of visitors who have been to the islands not just once before, but several times. The repeaters develop a "been there, done that" feeling about the major attractions and want something new.

"The increasing number of repeat visitors, not just on the westbound side but from Japan as well, behooves us constantly to be remaking ourselves," Carr said. "That's what Vegas does and that's what people like Disneyland do."

Helene "Sam" Shenkus, vice president of marketing at Roberts Tours & Transportation Co., said new attractions will help keep visitors coming back.

"There are a lot of memorable visitor experiences in Hawaii, like a luau, a sunset dinner boat cruise, a sightseeing tour, but they normally don't repeat them on a repeat visit unless they are accompanied by a friend or relative," Shenkus said.

Sea Life Park believes it can handle the approaching competition. "It's just something we'll have to deal with," said Ronald Williams, chief executive officer of Atlantis Adventures, which markets and manages Sea Life Park.

While the two new proposed facilities are different from each other, Williams sees Sea Life Park as different from either of them.

"We have a theme park. It is a little different from an aquarium," he said. Sea Life Park is an ocean theme park with an aquarium, and "we're not going to change our positioning of that or our branding," Williams said.

"While you would always like less competition, I think we're comfortable with being able to compete with whatever ends up being created," he said.

At the same time, he said Sea Life Park could use a tax credit, too -- "for revitalization, to help us compete and provide a better attraction."

Lingle, who spoke out in favor of the tax credit for Ko Olina during her campaign last year and let the 2003 Legislature know she supported it, has not said whether she will sign the tax-credit bill, but it appears likely that it will become law.

"The governor supported it all along, with the caveat that they do some sort of training" for the people on the Waianae Coast to help them qualify for hotel and resort jobs, said Lingle spokesman Russell Pang.

Ko Olina has moved to do that with its recent agreement to buy the 200-room Makaha Resort and develop an on-the-job training facility there.

Last year, Lingle lashed out at then-Gov. Ben Cayetano for his veto of the Ko Olina tax credit. She said the economic advantages of launching such a project were clear to her. Cayetano said there was not enough evidence that the tax credit would create economic growth. Cayetano also had been a supporter of an aquarium for Kakaako.

Stone continues to see the two aquarium projects as very different from each other, and said Lingle understands the Ko Olina project is designed to be "an economic engine" to spur other development and jobs in the area.

"She understands that ours is not really going to cost the state anything," Stone said.

Stone and his supporters have said all along that the taxes waived through the credit will be made up many times over by future taxes on earnings from the projects and wages of the people who work in them, as well as future general excise and use taxes.

The Hawaii Community Development Authority, the state agency that signed an agreement earlier this year to negotiate only with KUD for the development of the ocean science center in Kakaako, also sees the two projects as different.

"The word aquarium has been used quite loosely," said Jan Yokota, executive director of the authority, which is responsible for development of the Kakaako district bounded by Punchbowl Street, Kapiolani Boulevard, Ward Avenue and the Kakaako waterfront.

"They are two different kinds of projects. One (Ko Olina) has underwater tubes through lagoons. It's an attraction for the hotels and the timeshare units," she said. At Kakaako, "I think what they're looking at is sort of an expanded version of the Waikiki Aquarium, which has very strong research and education programs," she said.

Yokota said both are attractions for the tourist market but the Kakaako one is more about science, that uses an attraction to help pay for it, while the Ko Olina project is primarily a tourist attraction.

KUD appears to be "moving quite well" to develop a business plan that is to be presented to the authority's board early next year, she said.

KUD, which has offices on the West Coast and New York, has developed major public-use facilities, including the Pacific Bell Park sports arena in San Francisco.

KUD's proposal calls for a 500,000-gallon aquarium overlooking surf spot Point Panic, a six-story building with a floor area of 120,000 to 150,000 square feet, plus 150,000 square feet of private-enterprise biotechnology research and incubator laboratories, as well as a new 50,000-square-foot biomedical research building for the University of Hawaii.

The university is building the John A. Burns School of Medicine nearby, for which Kajima has the construction contract, and KUD says there are direct links between marine research and medical research.

The plan, supported by the University of Hawaii, also calls for an education/conference center with a theater. The complex would include a display of monk seals and sea turtles. There would be restaurants and shops and a new tree-lined entrance street.

Using its own money, KUD will come up with a feasibility plan to show how the economics would work. The company wanted initial financing by state revenue bonds, on which debt service would be paid by the commercial operations.

State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Halawa) said her tourism committee held back the Kakaako bond issue this year because "they were not ready."

HCDA and KUD "could not answer a number of questions that were raised" about financial feasibility. Kim is concerned about duplication of attractions that might cut into each other's business, leaving neither successful, she said.

"If you have a duplication of facilities, at some point none of them can survive," Kim said.

Stone's arguments for the tax break for the Ko Olina development center around future development. Major hotel developers and operators have said they won't be interested in the location unless there is an attraction to bring people to the area, Stone says.

To be built on land donated by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, next to the $50 million Ko Olina Marina, the aquarium has attracted the interest of major hotel and resort companies, such as Ritz-Carlton, Hilton, Hyatt, Centrex and Intrawest, Stone said.

"We have a signed letter of intent from Ritz-Carlton and we are working on other commitments," he said.

The hotel companies are waiting for the aquarium.

"They really are conditioned upon the aquarium moving forward. Once we know the aquarium is signed and ready to go, we will go back and clear those commitments for at least two hotels and a timeshare development," Stone said.

He calls the proposed development a "world-class interactive aquarium and a marine science and mammal research facility." Stone said the aquarium and the other projects it will attract will create 10,000 construction jobs and more than 2,100 permanent jobs over the next 10 years.

During the 10-year period of the tax credit, the development will create $186 million in new state tax revenue, he said.

Meanwhile the 98-year-old Waikiki Aquarium, adopted in the early 1900s as a University of Hawaii educational facility, continues to function and there are no plans to close it.

However, if the Kakaako project does get completed, it would become the UH aquarium, meaning an eventual end to the Waikiki operation, Waikiki Aquarium officials have said.


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