POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 24, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 2:22 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011
Liz Hata Watanabe is not one to sit on the sidelines. The former nightclub owner and entrepreneur has a new cause: getting Waikiki a casino.
Watanabe founded Citizens for a Better Way, an organization she says has more than 300 active members lobbying for a casino to provide new jobs and a new business for Hawaii.
"The reason is I am the mother of three little kids and I don't think we should be stealing money from state programs that desperately need help," said Watanabe, a former "mother of the year" and named one of Hawaii's top women business leaders.
She linked up with John Radcliffe, a lobbyist who has been pushing for a Hawaii casino for a decade. They met when Watanabe was doing a charity gambling-free poker tournament for her family charity, the Hata Foundation, which supports children and family organizations.
Citizens for a Better Way has also attracted the support of Jeff Coelho, a longtime broadcaster who will be retiring as general manager of Salem Media Hawaii and was an adviser to former Mayor Mufi Hannemann.
"I'm not interested in gambling; I am interested in Hawaii getting another revenue stream and if there are businesses that will give Hawaii $200 million a year for a gambling license, we should look at it," Coelho said.
"We have been talking about this for years," he added. "It is time to do something."
Watanabe said she is now a "stay-at-home" mom with enough time to start doing the grassroots organizing needed to make legislators pay attention.
Gambling popped up during the past legislative session, but was of only sporadic interest and never had a real chance of passage. Watanabe reports that her group will soon start a community television show to continue the discussion on gambling.
"The more research I do, the more this makes sense to stimulate the economy," she said.
But are these the sort of jobs we should be providing?
"A job is a job. People are earning honest money, and any honest job is a respectable job," Watanabe responded.
Gambling has long been fought in Hawaii by both police and church groups, who say that it will encourage criminal activity, lead to public corruption and set up government as encouraging the idea that citizens can get rich without working. Public opinion polls have shown the community almost evenly divided for and against the issue.
Coelho said he thinks that a properly controlled single casino in Waikiki would raise funds and be successful without causing problems.
"If we follow the models that work, limit the hours of operation and only have a single casino, it will create jobs and provide Waikiki with a new entertainment center," Coelho said.
Radcliffe works with Marketing Resource Group of Lansing, Mich. It works with a Detroit casino whose investors would be interested in bidding on a Waikiki casino, Radcliffe said.
"I am sure if given the opportunity, they would want to compete for a license," he said.
Under a bill proposed this year, potential casino operators would first have to put down a large fee for the right to make a bid on a casino license. The bidding would be handled by a specially appointed state board.
One citizens group does not a movement make, but getting strong community members such as Watanabe and Coelho shows that there is a diversity of viewpoints on the issue.
Getting it passed in an election year is another story.
Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at email@example.com.