Ko Olina aquarium pitched to lawmakers
By B.J. Reyes
A world-class aquarium complete with a marine science and mammal training center and sports facility at the Ko Olina resort in west O'ahu would help revive Hawai'i's struggling economy, a developer told lawmakers yesterday.
"We need something to send a message to the world that we have new market vehicles that will bring people back," Jeff Stone said in testimony before the House Committee on Economic Development and Business Concerns.
The project would create as many as 23,000 construction jobs and 10,000 permanent jobs, while generating about $60 million in annual tax revenue, said Stone, who sees the plan as "the catalyst to revive the economy."
The House committee was seeking details on the master development plan for Ko Olina as lawmakers consider a proposal to grant tax credits for businesses that invest in the development project. A Senate measure already has been approved by three committees.
The project has received the necessary zoning approval and several investors have signed on, Stone said. But the development will not move forward without approval from the state in the form of the tax credits, he said.
Some lawmakers questioned whether the tax credit proposal was too narrow because it benefits only those who take part in this specific project.
Although Stone said the project does not seek any state money, Rep. Ed Case, D-23rd (Manoa), said tax credits are a form of state financing and questioned why the measure should not be expanded to include similar breaks for other projects.
Stone said that if the state could afford it, then it should provide financing.
The state, however, is facing a $330 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year. Stone also reminded lawmakers that last session they pulled financing for a similar aquarium project in Kaka'ako proposed by Gov. Ben Cayetano. The governor has advocated a world-class aquarium in Hawai'i as a tourist attraction.
Some lawmakers also questioned whether the Ko Olina project would be a precursor to gambling, as developer Sun International has proposed.
Stone admitted that he had been contacted by Sun officials but insisted that a casino was not part of the plan.
"This has nothing to do with gaming," Stone said. "Our position on gaming is that it's absolutely up to the legislators."