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Ala Wai harbor needs fixes, funds

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    Ala Wai boat slips sit vacant despite a long wait list.

As an island state, Hawaii should have a vibrant and inviting waterfront, accessible to local residents, who should not feel priced out of the facilities, and attractive to the tourists who spend so much money here.

Success in achieving this balance is mixed at best, with stretches of Honolulu’s urban waterfront, especially, falling far short of their potential. The Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor is a prime example of a recreational and economic resource that could better serve individual boaters and be more of an economic driver for the whole state through a combination of sustained investment and better management.

As it stands now, the harbor has a vacancy rate above 10 percent, despite the fact that the waiting list for slips there ranges from six months to four years, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. Many boaters say the wait is often even longer than that, based on the many years they and their friends have spent waiting to get a slip. Moreover, maintenance delays are also at issue at the harbor, which doesn’t even have a fuel dock.

All this combines to depress Hawaii’s claim to being a world-class maritime destination, blunting the impact of what should be a natural economic niche for our island state. The negative financial effect is not limited to the slip rent that the state could be earning but isn’t. It extends to the ancillary businesses that would pump money into Hawaii’s economy, spending on everything related to getting and keeping a boat on the water, including the everyday expenditures of people who work in what should be a burgeoning industry.

"What gets me is that Hawaii is a beautiful place to go fishing and sailing, and we have less boats than Arizona, which is in the middle of the desert," merchant mariner Reg White told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Allison Schaefers, highlighting, as did other members of Hawaii’s boating community, that limited boat-storage options are a perennial problem, especially at the state’s premier recreational harbor.

Some tout privatization or commercialization as the answers, but they are not. The far better solutions would be for DLNR to adopt the flexible, responsive business practices of well-run private enterprises where it can, and for the state to devote a larger share of its budget to a department that does not receive enough money to properly fulfill its many roles.

DLNR receives a paltry 1 percent of the state budget, despite being responsible for managing, administering and exercising control over public lands, water resources, ocean waters, navigable streams and coastal areas (except for commercial harbors) — in other words, many of the things that make Hawaii a lovely place to live. Its jurisdiction covers nearly 1.3 million acres of land and beaches and 750 miles of coastline. The department is quite simply underbudgeted, and delays in filling slips at Ala Wai are one result.

That said, DLNR could streamline some processes to deploy its limited manpower more efficiently — the harbor office has been down to only two staff members for the past six months — and fill vacant slips more quickly. Filling slips needs to be a higher priority and timelines should be tightened to fill them more quickly. Currently, boaters who are offered slips have 14 days to decide whether they want them and 120 days to bring in the vessel. Both wait times are excessive, compared to privately run harbors that turn over slip vacancies more swiftly.

Outright privatization and overcommercialization should be avoided, because those moves could price out average local users. However, boaters clamoring for a special boating fund that would ensure all fees generated by the harbor stay with it for repairs and maintenance deserve a full hearing on that idea. The city government has moved in a similar direction for funding for some heavily utilized parks, and while the method has obvious downsides, harbor tenants are understandably intrigued. Spelling out the pros and cons should be a goal of an upcoming public meeting planned to address the ongoing problems.

At the core of all these concerns, though, lies the chronic underfunding of DLNR. Its mission is too important to undercut in such a flagrant fashion, and Hawaii’s maritime industry is but one of the casualties.

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