The pandemic has cost the Hawaii Tourism Authority more than half of its budget and all of its state appropriations for the foreseeable future.
But that didn’t stop the HTA board from agreeing to put another $250,000 into the Center for Hawaiian Music and Dance, a long-awaited project that has been fraught with problems since state lawmakers mandated its start more than a decade ago.
HTA President and CEO John De Fries said the allocation is to explore “the development of a virtual concept that would make Hawaiian music, dance, related histories and cultural storytelling available to the world online. Essentially, this approach takes (the center) into the digital world and would complement a ‘brick and mortar’ concept, as envisioned, originally.”
HTA cultural director Kalani Kaanaana recommended the latest Hawaiian center appropriation, which was approved by the agency’s board at its Dec. 17 meeting. It was part of the nearly $1.7 million fiscal year 2021 budget HTA approved for Hawaiian culture, down from nearly $8.1 million in fiscal year 2020.
Overall, HTA reduced its fiscal year 2021 budget to $41 million, down from nearly $87 million in fiscal year 2020. It’s also lower than the $48 million that was approved for fiscal year 2021 before Gov. David Ige declined to allow HTA to add roughly $5 million in emergency funds to its pandemic budget.
Kaanaana, who inherited the Hawaiian center project when he joined HTA, for several years now has been trying to evaluate sites that might be a better fit than the Hawai‘i Convention Center rooftop. Before Kaanaana’s time, HTA paid more than $800,000 for consulting work to establish a Center for Hawaiian Music and Dance at the convention center only to find out that the state couldn’t afford the $98 million it would cost to build.
State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D-Kapalama, Alewa, Fort Shafter), who advocated for the project when she was Senate president, said the idea was to give locals a reason to come into Waikiki and provide visitors with a cultural- based activity. Kim didn’t return a call from the Honolulu Star- Advertiser seeking comment but in the past had been open to tweaking the project’s scope.
Kaanaana canceled a Dec. 18 interview with the Star-Advertiser and instead requested to answer questions by email, which he later declined to answer as the project was in its earliest stages. However, Kaanaana did provide an update to the HTA board on Dec. 17.
“We faced a bunch of challenges on a different bunch of ways about actually getting something off the ground,” he told the board at the Dec. 17 meeting. “Recognizing the realities that museums, in general, are struggling to stay operational even prior to COVID, a physical structure may not be the best way to implement it.”
Kaanaana said a “virtual structure” would be easier to maintain and could reach a wider audience.
“Think of something that looks more like a video game and less like a 2D web page … that’s more interactive” and could be paired with the GoHawaii app that (the Hawaii Visitors &Convention Bureau) is revising and use technology such as augmented reality.
“Pretrip they could learn and access the site as a resource,” Kaanaana said. “Then, when they are actually here and, say, they walk past the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and it starts playing the song and it pops up with, you know, the information about the hotel, etc.”
Kaanaana said a virtual museum would be a way to “stay true to what the commission had originally envisioned — that it was not just a museum to preserve in a glass case the history of music and dance here in Hawaii, but would also support the vision that it be a living and thriving practice.”
The virtual endeavor could help the long-awaited Center for Hawaiian Music and Dance advance. Like many other projects in Hawaii, it’s past due and over-budget.
Kaanaana had explored moving the cultural center to Bishop Museum. He previously told lawmakers the revised plan would cost about $25 million. But so far, lawmakers haven’t approved a change of venue and the project has continued to drag, while some $6.2 million has accumulated in a state- seeded museum fund.
In 2007, lawmakers appropriated $80,000 for a feasibility study for the Center for Hawaiian Music and Dance. Since 2013, the Legislature has been directing HTA to set aside $1 million annually to fund operations at the future center, for which a budget was never set.
In 2014, under former HTA President and CEO Mike McCartney (now director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism) a contract for a business plan and design study was awarded to WCIT Architecture and subcontractor DTL Hawaii for more than 10 times what the Legislature had allocated.
In 2015, WCIT delivered a $98 million plan that recommended construction of an energy-efficient, 40,000-square-foot Hawaiian center, plus an exterior area for open-air seating with a performance stage and hula space. WCIT’s plan said a nonprofit board should be established to raise private dollars to cover the balance of funds needed to open and operate the Hawaiian center beyond the $1 million annual allocation established by lawmakers in 2013.
There has been little progress beyond the expensive planning phase after more than a decade of stalls. Delays even exacerbated the cost to fix the Convention Center’s rooftop terrace since the maintenance was deferred to allow repairs to be completed at the same time as the Center for Hawaiian Music and Dance.
Project proponents would like to see it finally move ahead, fulfilling an HTA requirement to perpetuate and preserve Hawaiian culture. Still, it’s unclear if spending another $250,000 to explore a change that hasn’t even been approved by lawmakers will draw widespread support.
“This isn’t the time or the place,” said state Sen. Glenn Wakai, chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Economic Development, Tourism, and Technology.
Wakai said the money would be better spent on seeing HTA through the pandemic.
“I told them the way they are spending they are going to spend themselves out of existence by next June and they don’t seem to understand the urgency of what’s in front of them,” he said.
Wakai said HTA’s transient accommodations tax appropriations have been stopped since April and “even if TAT comes back there is no guarantee that the governor will release it to them.”
“Right now nothing is going into their coffers and they are spending like they aren’t in a crisis,” he said “They’ll need to save more money to survive.”
HTA Vice President of Finance Marc Togashi said once encumbrances are removed, HTA has only $18 million in prior funds available for its fiscal year 2021 budget.
With tourism dramatically down and not projected to come back quickly, Wakai said he’s perplexed that HTA has not cut staff or at least hours, especially for those handling marketing contracts for source markets that aren’t in the current budget.
“Somehow they can’t see themselves having to cut payroll. If they were running a business and everything was down 90%, they would decrease expenses but that’s not HTA,” he said.
Wakai said he supports HTA’s quest to get reimbursed out of CARES Act funds for expenses incurred assisting the state with Safe Travels Hawaii. In June, De Fries requested a $3.3 million reimbursement from Ige for airport support, call center, hotels for heroes program, the web app for traveler self-reporting and data processing, and supplies.
“After the adoption by the board of HTA’s revised FY21 budget, any additional expenditures would be subject to board review and approval including the $3.3 million reimbursement of COVID-related expenses,” De Fries said.
However, Wakai is opposed to HTA’s request to add its $5 million emergency fund to its current budget. He’s also against putting more money toward the museum.
“The emergency fund is there to cover certain catastrophic events like chartering planes after 9/11 because there were no flights. It’s not for general operations like payroll,” Wakai said. “We’ve already wasted a bunch of money for this museum. Now they want to spend $250,000 on a hula game. I don’t see how that’s going to bring more people to Hawaii.”