Surf school management proposal raises concerns

  • A surf school takes students out at Kahaluu Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Visitors learn to surf at Kahaluu Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Visitors learn to surf at Kahaluu Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Ian Foo stands by his boards at HYPR Nalu Hawaii Surf SHop on Alii Drive. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Surf schools interested in the bidding process for a concession at Kahaluu Beach listen to DLNR Enforcement at a meeting presented by the Kohala Center at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Each year, an estimated 400,000 people flock to Kahaluu Beach Park, where swimmers, snorkelers and surfers gather for a fun day of sun, sand and sea.

And peppered throughout the water are often students from local surf schools, something state and county officials are trying to get a handle on by limiting the number of schools allowed to operate in the bay.

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Not everyone’s thrilled with the idea, and a meeting is planned for 10 a.m.-noon on Thursday at the West Hawaii Civic Center county chambers. State and county officials will be there to field questions.

The surf school program will be managed by The Kohala Center, which won an earlier bid to run it. The program would authorize up to four surf schools to offer surf lessons at Kahaluu, with the winning schools to be selected from the highest qualified bidders.

The minimum monthly fee is set at $3,000. Proposals must be received by 2 p.m. on Feb. 20.

The county’s agreement with the nonprofit requires fees be reinvested into the surf school program, and The Kohala Center has outlined a plan to use that money to hire educators to monitor the park on behalf of the county.

Cindi Punihaole. Kahaluu Bay Education Center director, a Kohala Center project, said their role is to monitor the program to make sure rules are followed, adding that the nonprofit’s extensive presence at the park and reputation as an organization “that listens to and works with the community” qualifies them to manage the surf school program.

The monthly fee collection isn’t, said Punihaole and Reid Sewake, business manager for the county Department of Parks and Recreation, meant to be a moneymaker for the group.

“We give our word to where that money goes,” Punihaole said.

Sewake said The Kohala Center will file monthly financial reports to account for the fees taken in and reinvested, adding, there’s “going to be oversight.”

But some surf school operators say that while they agree with the issues being raised, they still have questions about how the rules will be enforced, given the lack of enforcement of rules already on the books.

“We basically agree strongly with the county about all the safety issues,” said Ian Foo, who runs HYPR Nalu Hawaii, “because overcrowdedness is a fertile environment for accidents.”

Ben Callaghan, owner of Kahaluu Bay Surf and Sea, said he, too, agrees regulation is needed for the future of the bay, saying the county, through a lack of enforcement, has made it too easy “for basically anyone with a van and a few boards” to set up down there and teach lessons.

“And there’s nothing that’s been done about that,” he said.

And that’s where he and Foo, whose respective businesses both have physical locations away from the park, say more attention needs to be paid — toward roadside vendors operating illegally.

Foo said he’s also skeptical about how anybody will ensure unpermitted surf schools don’t keep operating at the park.

“We don’t mind bidding for the right to be one of the four approved surf schools,” he said. “But if they don’t enforce the four-school entity, there’s no value in the bid. What’s the point?”

Callaghan too said if officials are going to restrict the number of surf schools that can operate in the bay, he expects it to be enforced.

“If I’m going to be paying this much money, I demand some sort of reinforcement for this,” he said.

And while he said he believes The Kohala Center is trying the best it can to build something that can work for everyone, he still sees some gray areas, which he hopes get cleared up at Thursday’s meeting.

“I think the precedence for everything should be set in stone,” Callaghan said, “and they should have a concrete game plan for everything before they make people bid on this.”

While Foo said he can live with the status quo — saying the market naturally causes sloppy operators to fall off — if officials insist on doing something, he said, then it needs to be enforced, starting with enforcing the rules already in place.

He also doesn’t see a need to install The Kohala Center between the surf schools and the people with the power to enforce the rules.

“What you’re really talking about is an enforcement issue,” he said. “It’s not an educational issue.”

Sewake acknowledged that The Kohala Center can’t enforce any regulations at the park, but is rather tasked with monitoring for any violations, which could be reported to the county or state. He said the county is committed to enforcing the rules if violations arise.

Beside monitoring the park, Punihaole said, they’ll also be exploring how the program can develop moving forward.

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She said giving the program the ability to evolve is important and why there’s an advisory board, mandated by the county’s request for proposal, where the structure can be discussed.

“And we have to start somewhere,” she said. “And this is a start. It’s not the end; it’s a start.”