Reject Aloha Stadium plan in favor of UH Manoa

To play on a famous line from a popular 1989 Hollywood film, will they come when they build it?

More specifically, when the state of Hawaii rebuilds Aloha Stadium, will tens of thousands of football fans fill the seats to cheer on the Rainbow Warriors like old times?

That’s the fundamental question government officials should be asking as they go ahead with the plan for a new $350 million stadium in Halawa.

Gov. David Ige made the right decision by scrapping – for now – a proposal to build a public-private partnership mega-complex housing and entertainment complex as part of works in Halawa, where Aloha Stadium has stood since 1975 .

His government, with less than two months to go, is expected to present plans any day for a developer to build a stadium with just 35,000 seats.

A solution may be on the horizon, but it all feels a little rushed, a little desperate, as if Ige and DBEDT director Mike McCartney are trying to walk away with a win before the clock runs out.

Based on what has happened so far – e.g. For example, decades of neglect for the now-closed 50,000-seat facility, steadily declining ticket sales, turf wars between agencies and a University of Hawaii football team with five different coaches and only a few wins over the past 15 years — the likelihood of a new stadium building , as currently proposed, will pay off for both fans and finances is doubtful.

Civil Beat reported in April 2021 that some publicly funded mainland sports venues “have not met their original revenue and development goals, and taxpayers have had to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars over several decades.”

Of course, the chances of Hawaii giving up a soccer stadium are below zero. Soccer is by far the most popular sport nationwide, at both the collegiate and professional levels. High school football is also very competitive, with many local players making stellar careers on the gridiron.

But it’s really a matter of common sense and financial responsibility for Hawaii — which doesn’t have a professional sports team, although that was part of the rationale for building Aloha Stadium — to have a more appropriately sized stadium. That $350 million would be much better spent on affordable housing at the Halawa site, which is next to a train station.

A depiction of the Ching track and field field.
A representation of the Clarence TC Ching field. UH is holding its home games in Manoa while the state struggles to decide what to do with Aloha Stadium. University of Hawaii News

While the state struggled to find a solution, UH has admirably and expeditiously made efforts to continue holding home games at the Manoa campus.

With Aloha Stadium closed since December 2020, the Warriors have made good use of Clarence TC Ching Field in Manoa. Just two months ago, the UH Board of Regents approved a $30 million capital improvement project to expand seating capacity from 9,300 to 17,000 in one year.

The work includes replacing the grandstands in the Ewa end zone, expanding the existing seating in the Diamond Head end zone and adding seating that wraps around the corners of the field where the current track is located. This includes the installation of a 75-foot wide video scoreboard currently located at Aloha Stadium.

“The new seating will not exceed the existing height of the complex,” said UH in a press release.

The funding announcement followed an $8.1 million project in 2021 that expanded seating from 2,500 and was completed in time for the 2021 season. The NCAA minimum attendance for Division I teams is 15,000.

Could UH Manoa be the right place for a new stadium? That’s what three former governors argued a year ago.

Aloha Stadium has been closed since December 2020. What’s the best plan to replace it? David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Neil Abercrombie, Ben Cayetano, and John Waihee told state leaders that the state should build a 22,000-27,000-seat stadium on campus instead. That, they said, would free up the Halawa site for housing development focused on working-class housing.

“We believe that development funds at Halawa should go where it’s most needed — housing,” the letter reads.

Asked about the proposal a year later, Abercrombie said circumstances had changed.

The Hawaii Legislature transferred control of the stadium from the Department of Accounting and General Services to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism last session. General commitment bonds would also be used to fund the new stadium, on the condition that it be located in Halawa.

“I’m afraid it was a good idea at the time, but its time is up,” Abercrombie said Friday. “If the state had done what we suggested then, anything could have been done. Halawa could have been secured for housing and associated commercial activities.”

But is it really too late? In early December, there will be a new governor and administration, and many new faces in the legislature. Bold, creative thinking is required of our leaders.

The university could also be directly involved in discussions and decisions about what is best for the country in terms of a stadium. Hawaii will never have a football team to rival the University of Michigan, UCLA, or the University of Alabama, nor the resources to match their world-class athletic facilities.

But work on the Ching complex shows how important it is that the roles of quality education and collegiate athletics are not sidelined in order to achieve rust glory. UH has other Division I athletic teams that also need facilities and financial support, and Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal support. Despite declining attendance, football is still an economic engine that subsidizes other programs.

Rendering of New Aloha Stadium, NASED, Entertainment District, Halawa
A proposed real estate development around Aloha Stadium should help ease the burden on taxpayers. But Governor Ige canceled the plan, saying he would find a way to develop just the stadium. Courtesy: Crawford Architects

Maybe like Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams – where Shoeless Joe Jackson magically emerges from the cornfields to play baseball again – there will be a new Aloha Stadium. But this is just a movie. In reality, costly things can happen when promises are made and the state interferes in development (see: rail).

Do you remember that the stadium was supposed to be resistant to corrosion thanks to a “protective patina”? As the star advertiser recently reminded us, DAGS would report that later – what a shock! — salty air corroded it.

Finally, it is instructive to note that the construction of Aloha Stadium actually displaced existing affordable housing.

Halawa Housing, as it was known, was a collection of former World War II naval barracks converted into housing units for about 1,000 families. Everything was demolished to make way for the stadium and the freeway junction between the H-1, H-3 and Moanalua freeways.

Everything old is new again. We hope we get it right this time.

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