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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Navy reclaims controversial piece of Pearl Harbor land

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Senior Airman William Bentley visited the food area. Some feel retailing is inappropriate on what many consider hallowed ground.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The Navy is reclaiming a controversial parcel of land next to the USS Arizona Memorial visitor center and will turn over its control to the National Park Service for the creation of a long sought-after gateway and orientation center for four historic Pearl Harbor attractions.

The step means that the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, which opened a little over a year ago and houses 19 retail and food concessions, will close May 1, 2007, the Navy said.

The commercial venture on 6.4 acres generated controversy from its inception, drawing criticism from some politicians and Pearl Harbor survivors who said it trivialized the sanctity of the USS Arizona Memorial and competed with other nonprofit attractions, such as the USS Missouri Memorial and USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park.

Another historical venue, the Pacific Aviation Museum-Pearl Harbor, is scheduled to open Dec. 7 on Ford Island on the 65th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack that launched the United States into World War II.

The new gateway is intended to better serve the millions of visitors annually who travel to Pearl Harbor to see the Arizona Memorial and neighboring attractions.

The latest plan is part of an eight-year attempt by the Navy to bring together a group of non-profits that sometimes have been at odds with one another over revenue competition.

"The (initial) plan was an attempt to try and do what we're still trying to do today," said Rear Adm. Mike Vitale, commander of Navy Region Hawai'i, "which was to consolidate all of the nonprofits to tell one story, to create for Pearl Harbor this unique, world-class historic attraction that was seamless."

Officials with the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center maintain that the tents furnished with potted palms and dining area tables are popular as they fill a void for tourists who wait for hours for the launch ride to the sunken Arizona. Among the center's offerings are a sunglass shop, a variety of food stands, a Crazy Shirts shop, Maui Divers and a shop that sells DVDs of movies, such as "Tora! Tora! Tora!," "Pearl Harbor," and Elvis' "Blue Hawaii."

Visitor Center operations officer John Bates, a retired Marine colonel, advocated for a retired four-star admiral taking over as mayor of sorts for the historic attractions.

Without the direct clout of the Navy, which leases out the land on which the museums and memorials operate, an organization such as the National Park Service will have trouble unifying the nonprofits, Bates said.

"They (the National Park Service) are good folks, but they don't come from a position of strength," Bates said. "You've got strong personalities who will do just exactly what they want to do."

Vitale countered, "The park service is clearly the premier parks organization in the world. They can pull this off."

The Arizona Memorial, the most visited National Park Service site in the Pacific, has a 24,000-square-foot visitors center built in 1980. It was designed to accommodate 750,000 people a year but draws double that.

Plans are under way for a new $34 million center. How the addition of 6.4 acres to the National Park Service's existing 11 acres will affect that plan is unclear.

Doug Lentz, superintendent for the Arizona Memorial, said one of the site alternatives for the new center incorporated some of the land being transferred to its control. An analysis will be done "to determine the best alternative," Lentz said. Also to be examined is "what's appropriate" for commercial services.

The 6.4 acres at Halawa Landing had been leased to Ford Island Ventures as part of a Ford Island development agreement. The plan was for the creation of the central gateway, but instead, the 1942-themed tents were put up under an agreement with the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.

That alienated other nonprofit organizations operating there, and left little chance of a deal to create a shared gateway and ticket distribution, officials said.

A provision is in place that meant the concessions can be shut down with 90 days' notice, Vitale said. Tenants had been told to expect two-year terms of business, and November will mark two years.

Joe and Joelle Caiola, visiting from California and having a bite to eat at the visitor center yesterday, had conflicting feelings about the planned closure.

"I'd rather see it run by the park service so the money went towards the (Arizona) memorial," Joe Caiola said.

But his wife said, "There's definitely a need for" the amenities that the visitor center offers.

Joe Caiola noted, "I get concerned about trivializing our national monuments with a souvenir-shop mentality." He added: "I'd rather see straight donations than to sell (trinkets)."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.

Correction: The USS Oklahoma does not lie sunken off of Ford Island. It sank at sea in 1947 while being towed to the Mainland to be sold for scrap. There are plans to build a memorial to the USS Oklahoma, tentatively near the entrance to the USS Missouri, and to make that memorial a trolley stop on Ford Island. The current Arizona Memorial visitors center is 19,325 square feet. There are plans under way for a new 24,000-square-foot center. Information in an earlier version of this story was incorrect.