Wave of questions: County, nonprofit field concerns to surf school proposal

  • A show of hands of surf school operators in attendance is requested by meeting organizers Thursday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Cindi Punihaole, left, of the Kohala Center fields questions and comments Thursday at the West Hawaii Civic Center about the bidding process for surf school operators at Kahaluu Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Cindi Punihaole of the Kohala Center fields questions and comments about the bidding process for surf school operators at Kahaluu Beach Thursday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Jerome Kanuha recommends actions at a meeting Thursday at the West Hawaii Civic Center about the bidding for surf school operators at Kahaluu Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Hawaii County Fire Department Ocean Safety Captain Christopher Stelfox weighs in at a meeting about surf school bidding at Kahaluu Beach Thursday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Parks and Recreation Business Manager Reid Sewake, left, Deputy Corporation Council J Yoshimoto and Cindi Punihaole of the Kohala Center listen to stakeholders about the bidding process for surf schools at Kahaluu Beach Thursday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Following plenty of face time, some say there are still too many gaps in the conversation.

Such as Kona Town Surf Adventures owner Wesley Moore.

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Shortly after a two-hour meeting where officials from the state, county and The Kohala Center fielded questions about a proposal to limit surf schools at Kahaluu Bay, Moore said he feels no better about the idea.

“I don’t feel like anything was resolved,” Moore said outside the West Hawaii Civic Center Council chamber Thursday afternoon.

The business owner said he came to the meeting to get some answers about the plan to permit four surf schools to operate at the bay and how fees collected from permitted schools would be used, but those questions weren’t satisfactorily answered.

While he agrees that some type of regulation is needed, Moore said officials ought to put a hold on the process until it can be ironed out better.

“I would hope they would maybe come together and try to plan this out better,” he said. “It didn’t seem like they had everything planned out. And by not really notifying the companies that are in business, this system is not fair for the local communities.”

Moore’s not alone in feeling that way. The meeting, the second about the proposed surf school management program, attracted dozens of people.

The plan would limit the number of schools allowed to operate at the bay to four. The permitted schools would be selected through a competitive bidding process with a minimum fee of $3,000 a month.

The Kohala Center, which was selected to manage the program through an earlier bid process, is required by its agreement with Hawaii County to reinvest all of those fees back into the surf school program.

The nonprofit is accepting bids for the concessions, and bids must be received by 2 p.m. Feb. 20.

In addition to concerns about enforcement, how fees would be used and impacts on other surf areas, the question of blackout dates also came up.

According to the invitation for bids, the surf school concessionaires can’t operate on 14 county holidays and “any other holidays added by the County of Hawaii.”

“So not only do we have Mother Nature to deal with,” said Ocean Eco Tours owner Rob Hemsher, referencing days when natural conditions restrict schools’ ability to do business, “what about these imposed blackout dates where you’re saying we cannot work? That’s pretty scary to me, very scary.”

Reid Sewake, business manager for the county Department of Parks and Recreation said blackout dates were included to accommodate for the higher density of people at the park on holidays.

Jerome Kanuha urged officials to “slow down” and bring the director of Parks and Recreation to the table for a discussion.

The director, Kanuha said, “needs to be in the picture too and discuss this whole thing … You need the main guys.”

He added there is a solution and the issue can be fixed, the question is just how.

Hawaii Fire Department Ocean Safety Division Capt. Chris Stelfox gave kudos to The Kohala Center and director Cindi Punihaole of Kahaluu Bay Education Center, a project of The Kohala Center, saying their efforts have been a big relief at the park and allowed ocean safety officers to focus on watching the water and less on being park caretakers.

“She’s trying to find a solution,” Stelfox said. “I think everybody here would like to see a solution.”

Stelfox put forward the idea of grandfathering surf schools already in business and granting a permit to all those actively running surf schools. A surf school owner would lose the permit if they don’t pass the business on to a direct descendant of their family.

Over time, he said, that would lead to a reduction in surf school activity at the bay and restore the natural habitat there.

“Yeah, we like that,” replied one crowd member among applause for Stelfox’s idea.

Ian Foo, who offers surf lessons at his business HYPR Nalu Hawaii and previously expressed skepticism about how the program would be enforced, said after Thursday’s meeting his concerns had only increased.

“I feel worse about it,” he said, “because we didn’t know that this thing was open bidding to other surf schools around the state.”

While the program invitation for bids has a list of “preferred qualifications” that gives priority to bidders who have a current state commercial use permit for surf instruction and who can provide proof of having provided surfing lessons for at least five years, there isn’t any reference in that list giving priority to those who have operated within Hawaii County or at Kahaluu.

At the end of Thursday’s meeting, Sewake and Punihaole said they would take into consideration the comments and suggestions that came up at the meeting and follow up within a week.

Sewake said surf school owners should still proceed as if the bid will go forward while the matter is being considered by administrators.

“We’ll get a message out within a week as to how we’re going to proceed,” Sewake said. “But in the meantime, they should probably still proceed like that’s the deadline.”

Punihaole said afterward that she heard some good suggestions from the meeting that will be taken into consideration.

“I think having buy-in, having the chance to air their suggestions and make their comments, I think this kind of meeting is really important,” she said, also reiterating that the program is intended as a starting point.

Deputy Corporation Counsel J. Yoshimoto said the overarching message he heard was that people mostly wanted to be kept in the loop about what was going on, saying the department administration will be sure to communicate with the community.

“We want to do what’s right,” he added.

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Given that people generally agree that there was an issue that needed to be resolved, Yoshimoto reiterated a comment Kanuha made during the meeting.

“It’s the ‘how can,’ ‘how can we?’” Yoshimoto said. “So we can. We definitely can.”