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The Conversation: 3 former governors propose building housing instead of a new stadium in Halawa

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Build it and they will come. How often have we heard that one? Consider the Hawaiʻi Convention Center, the Aloha Tower Marketplace, even the old Aloha Stadium — how many times have we actually sold out seats in the rusty palace, anyone keeping score?

Then came the first bombshell — the stadium seating was unsafe. Shut it down (sorry about that UH).

And then the second bombshell — three former governors propose that perhaps the focus should be housing at Halawa and that a smaller stadium should instead go to UH Mānoa.

Will that fly? We invited the three governors to have a conversation about this. John Waiheʻe, Ben Cayetano, and Neil Abercrombie join us for our roundtable talk.

Interview Highlights

On how their joint announcement came about during lunch at Murphy's Bar & Grill

JOHN WAIHEʻE: It was a great time. It doesn't happen all that often, but it was lunchtime with Neil Abercrombie, and with Ben Cayetano. And the three of us were talking about all kinds of issues. And all of a sudden, I think it was Neil that mentioned the stadium and Ben jumped on it. And all three of us said that was not a good idea. In fact, the language was a little bit more colorful than that. Immediately we said, "Well, you know, let's say something about it." And so, Neil picked it up, and we all agreed we're going to do this and we have — it's just not workable.

On focusing on housing development at the Aloha Stadium site

BEN CAYETANO: The Aloha Stadium site encompasses about 98 acres. Now if you can imagine two Ala Moana malls put together, you could do that with 98 acres. That land is state land and is a perfect site for the 20,000 or so housing units that we are short — we being the people of this state. It seems like a total waste of money to spend $432 million and counting, I guess, for a 35,000-capacity stadium, when football attendance now averages about 21,000 a game.

One study that I saw concluded that people who rent who have good incomes, they may pay as much as 30% of their total income for rent. However, for people who don't have good jobs, who have to work two jobs, rent may account for as much as 50% of their total income. There's a tremendous shortage of affordable rentals, affordable housing in this state, and that needs to be addressed because, after almost 20 years of that accumulating, we're at the tipping point right now. And once people start leaving the state in greater numbers, we're going to have a problem maintaining a viable middle class here. Because we're not talking about just college. Kids go to college on the mainland. We're talking about people who are going to be working in hotels, be firefighters, police — who's going to be filling those jobs. That's the problem that we have.

NEIL ABERCROMBIE: That's exactly right. You don't have to look further than the headline in today's Star-Advertiser talking about how the luxury housing market is going to explode here in Hawaiʻi. They're all showing up from all over, not just the foreign countries, but they're showing up from the mainland with money, cash to be able to buy houses and goose the property tax base. Meanwhile, we can't even get the minimum wage raised in the legislature.

On whether they think the University of Hawaiʻi football team will return to Halawa

NEIL ABERCROMBIE: UH is never, ever going back to Halawa.

JOHN WAIHEʻE: Let me second that because I agree with you. I mean, look at what Stan Sheriff did for volleyball and basketball. I mean, you need to put collegiate sports on campus.

ABERCROMBIE: In a collegiate stadium, not some entertainment event. Are they going to have bread and circuses out there? Is it going to be a coliseum so we can see the last of the Rolling Stones before they keel over? And take all the money out of Hawaiʻi?

On the likelihood of a professional sports team coming to Hawaiʻi

JOHN WAIHEʻE: There's this dream — I mean, Neil, you and Ben both know, and I know — this idea that somehow if you build it, we'll get a professional team in Hawaiʻi. I mean, it never happens. If we had a professional team, they would be building it or working with us to do it right now. But this idea that soccer might come, or football might come... I mean, we had the Hawaii Islanders (baseball), remember, and we had the Hawaiʻi football league and none of that panned out because of all kinds of other reasons. And here we are still hoping — it doesn't work. Besides Halawa included housing. Prior to the stadium, it was a site of housing. People lived there, grew up there.

NEIL ABERCROMBIE: We all thought that there was going to be a Pro Bowl here forever. We even paid them to come here, paid them $5 million a year to come here. And of course, they abandoned it the second that they thought they could make money someplace else.

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Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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