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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 20, 2003

Facility awaits private operator

By Treena Shapiro and Johnny Brannon
Advertiser Staff Writers

Chris Medeiros with the City & County Department of Facilities Maintenance hangs one of 30 red, white and blue banners at the Waipi'o Soccer Complex in preparation for a U.S. Youth Soccer regional championship next week.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

A major tournament has again underscored the popularity of the city's $24 million Waipi'o Soccer Complex, but a long-promised plan to privately manage the facility at no cost to taxpayers remains elusive.

The city spends more than $550,000 per year to operate and maintain the 300-acre park, which features 21 soccer fields and a lighted stadium.

Next week, 212 soccer teams from 13 states will battle it out there for the U.S. Youth Soccer Region IV Championships. They'll use the fields for free, something offered virtually nowhere else for a similar event.

Manny Menendez, City economic development director, said finding a private operator remains a key goal for the 3-year-old facility, and that the city will seek new contract proposals in about three months.

Earlier contract talks fizzled because all potential operators wanted the city to subsidize their operations or promise to bail them out if they couldn't cover all expenses.

"The last time we did this we got great proposals, but at the end of the day the analysis showed that it would cost the city less to do it themselves than have a private operator, through subsidies and other concessions," Menendez said.

But it will be different this time, he said, because the complex now has a solid history of attracting big tournaments, and the City Council recently approved a bill that allows fees to be charged for organized events. The city is working to set up a fee schedule.

"Now we have a fabulous track record and we have (the bill) in place," so it will be easier to nail down a good deal for the city, he said.

Schedule at Waipi'o

Additional tournaments have been scheduled at the complex for the next few months, including:

• The Veteran's Cup, Aug. 6-10

• The Honolulu Challenge Cup, Aug. 14-17

• The Olympic Development Program, Aug. 23-34

• The Labor Day Soccer Festival, Aug. 28-Sept.1

• HYSA Tournament, Aug. 30-Sept. 1.

Menendez said he's confident that soccer leagues will still flock to the complex even if they must pay to use it.

Hawai'i soccer enthusiasts have been thrilled with the park since it opened in 2000 and are hopeful that fees won't keep players out.

"We're taking a wait-and-see attitude," said Scott Keopuhiwa, president of Hawaii Youth Soccer Association and chairman of the Hawai'i organizing committee for the coming tournament. "Obviously any fees incurred will most likely have to be passed on to the players and their parents.

"I'm sure that if the cost were moderate and seemed affordable to the parents, it wouldn't be a problem. If they are too high, we may have to look at other alternatives."

Keopuhiwa said the Waipi'o complex is one of the nation's best soccer parks and has sparked lots of interest among Mainland soccer groups with which he has talked.

"We immediately have been put on the map as a place to go for tournaments," he said. "It's evident that all of HYSA and the soccer community is grateful for the soccer complex. And it's a credit to the city for building it because it's one of the best facilities around."

Lorraine Rutkowski, who helped coordinate the Aloha International Tournament Cup for 11 years, said visitors have been pleasantly surprised by the beautifully manicured fields.

Terence Texeira, a caretaker at the Waipi'o Soccer Complex, adjusts a power mower used to cut the grass on the complex's soccer fields. A city official says about two-thirds of the fields are in play each weekend.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

But Rutkowski reserved judgment on the effect that fees would have on the park's future.

"It would depend on what the cost would be," she said. "Like anything else, you're going to have to tack it on to the entrance fees for the teams to play in the tournaments. We might be forced to go back to the smaller fields (elsewhere), which would be sad."

City Council budget chairwoman Ann Kobayashi, who has scrutinized spending on the soccer park, said she's hopeful it will become self-supporting without jeopardizing its popularity.

"I think it's a great project. It's just that it got off to a bad start because it was built with the understanding that the maintenance costs would be covered by fees, and then that never happened," she said. "Now that more teams are finding out what a great place it is, I think it will turn out all right — I hope."

Menendez said it may be harder to attract events because the council eliminated money for economic development marketing from the city budget for the year that begins July 1.

The complex is heavily used, with about two-thirds of the fields in play every weekend, according to Malcolm Tom, city deputy managing director. Games are rotated so that worn grass on unused fields can regrow, he said.

During weekdays, teams generally practice on other fields in their neighborhoods, though the complex is available, he said.

Tom said Honolulu is fortunate to be one of the nation's few cities to have so many soccer fields in one location. Hosting a regional championship is a tremendous feat for a facility in just its third year of operation, he said.

Menendez added, "It provides our kids an opportunity to play at the national level, right here in our back yard.

"We're always lobbying and trying to attract these tournaments here. Where we have been pleasantly surprised is to get them so early."

Though the soccer park does not directly generate any money to pay for its upkeep so far, the city receives a portion of the state hotel tax levied on visitors, Tom said.

The city's share adds up to $32 million per year, and includes money from thousands of visitors who come for soccer events, he said.

When tournaments are held at off-peak times for tourism, it's a "fantastic economic boom that goes directly to the city," he said.

Tom said the complex has hosted 24 tournaments so far, including national, international, regional and local teams. Most have been for high school teams, he said.