(Star Advertiser) Council members question Caldwell’s Blaisdell plan

(Source: Star Advertiser)

A majority of Honolulu City Council members now are expressing serious reservations about Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s plan to redevelop the Neal S. Blaisdell Center complex.

Two Council committees grilled administration officials about the estimated $772 million plan last week. One of them — the Council Parks, Community Services and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee — on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a resolution calling on the administration to “reevaluate the viability and feasibility” of the plan. The resolution noted that the state recently began ramping up its efforts to redevelop Aloha Stadium, a development that could pose competing interests with the city project.

City Enterprise Services Director Guy Kaulukukui told committee members that the plan is to try to secure a third-party partner for the Blaisdell redevelopment by late next year.

Preliminary plans call for demolishing and replacing the arena and exhibition hall areas of the 57-year-old complex, providing a major face- lift for the concert hall and replacing existing parking. The complex would be closed for two to three years for the redevelopment.

With that in mind, the city is not receiving any bookings for the Blaisdell arena, exhibition area or concert hall beyond December 2020.

Hold everything, said Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who co-introduced Resolution 19-181 with Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi. The Aloha Stadium initiative presents a “new proposal for an alternative location for a major redevelopment of an entertainment and recreational facility which also has a lot more in the way of financing alternatives,” Fukunaga said. “It’s a good time for us to re-examine maybe some of the scope of the NBC proposal so that we can appropriately scale the project to the city’s needs.”

Kobayashi said, “It’d be nice to glamorize NBC, but we just can’t afford it at this time. We’ve spent millions of dollars maintaining it and we should continue to maintain the facilities that we have and look at the new stadium development plans.”

Kaulukukui said the administration supports the intent of the resolution but stressed that since discussions about Blaisdell redevelopment first began five years ago, “we have been evaluating and reevaluating the feasibility and viability of the project.”

He added: “Doing nothing truly is not an alternative.”

The administration is in the throes of soliciting proposals from private entities who can partner with the city on the redevelopment, thus reducing the city’s share of the cost and risks of the undertaking, Kaulukukui said.

Sixty-nine firms have expressed interest in becoming a partner, he said. A Request for Qualifications period is due to end Nov. 30 and actual proposals are due next June.

A decision should be announced by December 2020 — just as Caldwell prepares to leave office, Kobayashi noted.

“To burden the next administration with this cost, plus the cost of rail, plus the cost of all of the housing problems that we have and the homeless problems and the parks, the timing just doesn’t seem right,” she said.

Kaulukukui said the administration does not believe there are competing interests between Blaisdell and Aloha Stadium because of the size differences, nor with the state convention center, which is focused on drawing out-of-state visitors.

Before the Council Business, Economic Development and Tourism Committee, Chairwoman Kymberly Pine questioned why the city is undertaking a more ambitious endeavor rather than simply renovating the existing facilities as proposed in a 2015 study.

“Right now we have a decaying resource,” Kaulukukui said. “Without a significant investment, or reinvestment, all we’re doing is passing on to future generations the remnant of a facility that needs to be one of the more significant gathering places in our cultural and arts district.”

It now costs the city about $13 million to operate and maintain the complex, with about $6 million subsidized by city taxpayers through the general fund, he said. “That is not a sustainable model.”

A “pre-proposal” conference held recently attracted 30 firms, and since then the city has received follow-up questions from 11 of them, Kaulukukui said.

Until the city receives actual proposals from bidders, “the true cost to the city is not revealed … and the only way we do reveal that is to go all the way through the process,” he said.

Asked by Pine if the administration has determined a ceiling for how much the city would be allowed to spend, Kaulukukui said there’s not. “What will happen is the city will evaluate the proposals and determine if there is one in there that the city can afford and is beneficial to the city.”

Kaulukukui said the Council will be the final arbiter of how much city money will be spent because it votes on the city budget annually.

Pine reiterated her frequent criticism that not enough priority is given to existing city facilities in need of improvements.

Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson urged the administration to provide cost figures as soon as possible “so you can gauge the comfort level” that Council members would have with the proposal.

Kaulukukui said his agency is “brainstorming” with the symphony and other users about what venues they could use during the time Blaisdell is dark.

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