KAILUA-KONA — West Hawaii golfers, it’s time to rejoice.
Hawaii County’s subsidized golf program returns Jan. 2, some 6.5 years after funding was slashed in 2012 amid tough economic times that resulted in reduced spending across the board and even monthly employee furloughs.
“We went through tough times and it got taken away, and now we’re bringing it back,” Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation Director Roxcie Waltjen said Tuesday afternoon. “We’re just very fortunate that we have enough money to offer this starting from Jan. 2 until June 30, and we’re going to see how well we can do.”
The Waikoloa Village Association was the lone bidder for the $250,000 contract to offer subsidized golf course rounds to West Hawaii residents, according to the county Department of Finance Purchasing Division. The program will run six months, or through June 30, at the Waikoloa Village Golf Club.
Per the agreement, which is still being finalized after bids were opened on Friday, a minimum of 6,000 rounds of 18-hole golf with cart will be offered to residents during the the period. Continuation of the program will depend on continued funding in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“I’m hoping a lot of people take advantage of this offer. Our whole idea is to give the West Hawaii community an opportunity to have golf at the same rate as people in East Hawaii have at the municipal golf course,” said Waltjen.
Residents will pay a maximum $35 per round of 18 holes with lower rates for seniors and juniors. Those age 60 and greater will pay $30, while youth 17 and younger will pay $15. The rate is plus the state’s general excise tax (GET), which increases Jan. 1 to 4.712%.
“We’re excited to be able to offer to the golfers the county subsidy,” said Thomas Wade, Waikoloa Village Golf Club golf operations manager.
The Waikoloa Village Golf Club has a Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed course featuring generous fairways and well-guarded greens, according to the club’s website. The 6,791-yard, par-72 course is the second oldest on the Big Island.
“The course, right now, is in fantastic shape,” said Wade, “We’re getting a lot of compliments.”
The $250,000 in funding to resume temporarily the subsidized golf course rounds was added to Mayor Harry Kim’s 2019-20 budget in May by the Hawaii County Council. It is via the county’s fund balance reserves, which is cash left over at the end of a budget year that also serves as a buffer and carries over to help fund future budgets.
“I’d like the program to work for West Hawaii and be continued through to 2021,” said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, who took the $250,000 from the fund balance to pay for the program. “Constituents on the west side have asked and asked for this support. We budgeted to provide it, now we need to make it happen.”
The county had originally started the program back in 2006 under Kim’s second administration to bring parity to West Hawaii because the Hilo Municipal golf course is the only county-owned facility on the island.
At the start, the Waikoloa Village and Makalei golf clubs received $350,000 each to provide $25 golf rounds. By fiscal year 2008-09, the county was spending $1.1 million a year to offer $25 18-hole rounds at the two clubs.
The program continued, albeit with some changes such as offering $10 off at more golf courses, until 2012 when then-Mayor Billy Kenoi eliminated the $500,000 spent annually as part of budget cuts. At the time, however, no cuts were made at the Hilo Municipal Golf Course, which at the time received $500,000 in funding, though use fees were increased.
The Hilo facility, which recently underwent a $17 million renovation, now relies on an annual $650,000 taxpayer subsidy. Currently, greens fees are $15 weekdays and $18 weekends and holidays for Hawaii residents. Non-residents pay $35 weekdays and $40 weekends and holidays. Cart fees are extra.
Talk of an affordable municipal golf course in West Hawaii has gone on since 1990, when the county sought to build an 18-hole course on acreage near Kealakehe Parkway. The county granting a permit to begin building in 1991 to Japan-based Kealakehe Associates, nothing has come of a municipal golf course in West Hawaii beside the county notifying the developer in 2001 that the contract was void.
In 2004, the county tried again by issuing a request for proposal for a municipal golf course at Kealakehe, but couldn’t attract a developer willing to build and operate the course. Since, the acreage once to be transformed into a municipal golf course has been designated for the Kealakehe Regional Park, which remains in the environmental study phase. As of the 2013 preferred plan, the regional park included a driving range in its later phases.
“I think this is a great opportunity in West Hawaii,” Waltjen said of the subsidy program. “It’s unfortunate that we can’t afford to build a golf course over there but I think this is a good start.”