House committee OKs dual aquarium bills
By B.J. Reyes
House lawmakers yester-day approved a measure granting tax breaks for development of a major aquarium in West O'ahu while also reviving a proposal to assist the development of a similar project in the downtown Kaka'ako district.
"Many places with ocean resources such as ours, they might have an aquarium and an ocean research center," said Rep. Brian Schatz, D-25th (Makiki, Tantalus), chairman of the House Committee on Economic Development and Business Concerns. "It's possible to sustain both."
The idea for enhancing the state's tourism product through attractions such as an aquarium began under former Gov. Ben Cayetano. While developers agree that such attractions would help, the dual proposals indicate some disagreement on what approach to take.
Lawmakers last session showed their support for a 75,000-square-foot aquarium project at Ko Olina Resort in West O'ahu by passing a measure granting $75 million in tax credits over 10 years for the development.
Cayetano vetoed the bill, but Gov. Linda Lingle supports it, and reintroduced bills in the House and Senate as part of her legislative package for this session.
Those bills have died in committee. The Senate's version of the proposal, approved yesterday by two House committees, does not specify the amount of the tax credits that could be claimed by developers. The measure still must be approved by the House Finance Committee.
Jeff Stone, the lead developer of the Ko Olina project, said the difficulties with getting the measure passed this session didn't surprise him.
"Unfortunately, today is a different time from last year," Stone said this week, noting that similar construction tax credits aimed at boosting the economy were passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "I think some of those measures, unfortunately, were abused and they're being very careful to make sure that all these things are accountable now."
Schatz said developers should not be deterred, noting that any plan to build an aquarium should be considered a long-term investment.
"There remains a significant amount of interest and those investors with the resources to think long-term continue to be enthusiastic about these projects," he said. "I think the Ko Olina project is worthy of consideration. I don't see it as an either-or proposition."
Schatz's committee revived a proposal allowing the Hawai'i Community Development Authority the agency responsible for developing Honolulu's Kaka'ako area to issue as much as $40 million in special facility revenue bonds for the development of an ocean science center.
Earlier this month, the authority agreed to work out a development plan with KUD International LLC, which is planning to build an aquarium and marine research complex. A specific plan has not yet been approved.
In presenting a proposal to the development authority, KUD president Marvin Suomi said he didn't think O'ahu could support two similar aquariums, noting that the mission of his proposed 150,000-square-foot facility is to educate, to conduct research and be a world-class tourist attraction.
Stone agreed, but said he was told by the development authority and the University of Hawai'i which is developing its new medical school in Kaka'ako that the Kajima project would primarily be a research facility.
It now will be up to lawmakers to figure out whether one or both projects would be more beneficial for the state.
Regardless of how it ends up, Stone said Ko Olina will continue to try and attract as many visitors as it can.
"This is just one of the best concepts that we've come up with," he said. "I know Ko Olina will survive. It unfortunately won't create the kind of economic stimulus we need in a much faster pace."