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Saturday, November 22, 2014         

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Kevin Chong Kee

The Aloha Stadium honcho says fixing the venue entirely now is the best option while waiting for a new stadium to be built

By Dave Koga

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Kevin Chong Kee knew this moment was coming. For the past seven years, as chairman of the Aloha Stadium Authority, he has occupied a 50-yard-line seat as the 36-year-old facility's day of reckoning drew nearer. So when Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced in his State of the State address two weeks ago that he was halting a planned $59 million upgrade of the stadium, Chong Kee's reaction was more sad shrug than shock.

"I had heard he was going to do it, you know, through the grapevine," he says. "And, really, I wasn't surprised because there's a lot of other areas where the state is short of money."

Abercrombie described the stadium as a money pit into which the state has poured "hundreds of millions of dollars of repairs to this point and requires hundreds of millions more and won't last another 20 years."

"Other than maintenance related to health and safety," the governor said, "I will divert all other capital improvement dollars for Aloha Stadium to other projects" while a study is being done "to make a definitive decision on Aloha Stadium and any future stadium we might build."

Chong Kee was there in 2005, when the stadium authority decided the best course -- as long as legislators were unwilling to build a new stadium, which was then estimated to cost about $300 million -- was for the state to embark on a series of repair-and-improvement projects designed to keep Aloha Stadium open as long as possible.

In some ways, the facility has been something of a lost cause from the day it opened in 1975.

"I mean, this was a stadium that wasn't going to rust," Chong Kee says. "How could anybody in Hawaii have believed that, with the salt air?"

Chong Kee says the return of the NFL's Pro Bowl, the University of Hawaii's imminent entry into the Mountain West Conference and the Hawaii Tourism Authority's announced plans to expand sports marketing make upkeep of the stadium even more important, especially since the estimated cost of a new stadium now is about $500 million.

"After all," he says, "this is the only venue in town."

QUESTION: What has the state told you about what's next?

ANSWER: (Bruce Coppa, interim comptroller at the state Department of Accounting and General Services) came to the (Stadium Authority) meeting (the Thursday before the Pro Bowl) and his explanation was they aren't cutting funds entirely for the stadium, that they would allow health and safety things to continue. That's fine. But where do you stop on addressing health and safety? How do you define "health and safety," and what is enough?

Because we all know the stadium can use a lot of work, not only health and safety, but, say, to address the needs of the elderly to get to the upper levels, because all they have is the spiral staircase.

We have one elevator -- it's a freight elevator -- and it's been there since 1975. To be responsible for running a stadium, you can't say, "That's good enough." You have to address certain issues.

The other thing is restrooms. I think currently with our women's restrooms, we're 300-plus under what's required by current building standards. Another thing is the disabled. They sit around the outer edges on both sidelines right now. Do you just let them sit there the way it is now? Because they're sitting in walkways. All it takes is one lawsuit.

Q: What major work would be halted if money is withheld?

A: The funding that's there for this session for the mauka section would have entitled them to start work on the towers. That would stop. The plan was to build a tower in each of the four corners of the stadium, and in those towers would be elevators for passengers, plus service elevators and restrooms. So they would close up where the wedges are, because there's no other place to put elevators or restrooms. And that's not frills, it's basic needs.

You know, the state likes to build things. But it's the maintaining of those buildings that's the problem. It's like your family home. If you build it, you have to maintain it. You have to paint it. You have to fix the plumbing if it's broken. But you can't wait until it breaks down, or wait for 20 years, because now you have a bigger problem.

Q: The stadium, though, is safe, right?

A: The stadium is safe, that I can say, because it was just re-certified. They strengthened the whole outside steel of the stadium. Now they're finishing the steel and they're painting as they come down. Those jobs can go year-round because they're outside of the stadium. So that's been taken care of.

The third phase of the roof repairs also will be completed (after) the Pro Bowl . At the same time, the FieldTurf is going to go in ... for football and soccer. They're going to expand the footprint of the turf so it goes all the way to the borders so a regulation soccer field can fit on the field. One of the complaints they had the last time Major League Soccer came was that the grass was too short so the ball was too fast and they didn't have control. But this field is approved by both leagues, football and soccer.

The Pro Bowl is coming back next year. ... The NFL people have been keeping tabs with DAGS and the stadium on the promise of the repair work. So they're going to be looking to make sure that we're doing what we say we're going to do and which were some of the grounds for them coming back. The main thing (for the NFL) was safety for the fans. And they were pleased with what we did.

Q: What's your take on the state building a new stadium?

A: People have to make up their minds. The latest report we got was that to put up a new stadium, it's going to cost close to $500 million. Back in '05, it was said to be close to $300 million. No matter what people say, the cost of construction is only going to go up.

If they pick that area (near the new University of Hawaii-West Oahu site in Kapolei) where Rep. (K. Mark) Takai wants to put it, there's no infrastructure out there, so you not only have to build the stadium, you have to build the infrastructure. You have to include that into the equation of how much it's going to cost.

I think the governor wanted Kalaeloa. Well, how are you going to get the people from the highway to Kalaeloa? Through the neighborhoods? It's that, or you have to build more highways or roadways.

The reason the cost (of maintenance projects at Aloha Stadium) is going up more than we expected is because of the way the money was appropriated. You break it into little slots, you only can do things a little bit at a time, and over the long run that costs you more. They give us $12 million ... we have to figure out the best way to use the money. We picked the roof. That was the most critical thing because the roof was rusting. Bolts were popping out. So we had to make sure nobody got hurt from things falling on them.

Q: In your judgment, how long can this stadium be maintained before we have to build a new one?

A: I know we can't do it indefinitely. But if they let us maintain it, I think it could go a good 20 years. And that would give them the time they need to find and secure an area to build a new stadium. That would be perfect timing, because before you even start, before you can even break ground, it could take you a good 10 years to find the land, go through all the planning stages, complete the EIS and everything else.

Q: If you were the governor, what would you do?

A: I would fix Aloha Stadium right now. Then I would start the planning stages for building a new one. To me, if they fund it accordingly. ...

Look, the more you stretch it out, the more expensive it gets, I don't care what you say. But if you can consolidate to where you can do a whole section at a time, you'll cut your cost in half.

I think the governor mentioned something like 40 years (to finish a 20-year plan). Well, that's because the plan has been to appropriate us at something like $6 million a year, and that's not going to do anything. If you fund it so you can do whole sections at a time, we can do stuff. And I think that's what (former state comptroller) Russ Saito did. He went to the Legislature and picked areas instead of committing to a whole lump sum, and that was the plan at first -- North end zone, then South end zone, then mauka and makai -- but then they had to rethink it because they were only given enough money to cover certain things.

Q: How much money does the stadium need to finish its ongoing projects?

A: If we could get $39 million I think we could finish refurbishing the mauka stands and do one quadrant of the tower plan. And if we get more money, the next year they'll do the next corner, and the next corner and the next corner. And if you saw the concept drawings for the towers, it's going to look nice. It will really change the look of the stadium.

And now the NFL wants to come back, so HTA is negotiating to extend the two-year contract. And you have the Mountain West Conference in sight. And there's all this talk about expanding sports marketing in Hawaii. But how can you do that with a stadium that's half-repaired, half-painted? It doesn't look good. To me, if you want to do all of that, you have to put the money into improving it.






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