Officials mum on surf school pilot progress at Kahaluu

  • A surf school takes students out in January at Kahaluu Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — More than two weeks after a deadline to submit bids for a surf school pilot program at Kahaluu Bay, local surf schools said they haven’t heard anything from either the county or the nonprofit picked to manage the program.

“It just leaves us in limbo,” said Wesley Moore, who owns Kona Town Surf Adventures.

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The six-month pilot program is intended to regulate surf lessons taught at Kahaluu Bay by restricting the number of businesses allowed to operate to four. Concessionaires are to be selected through a bidding process with a minimum bid of $3,000 a month, and the deadline for bids was March 27.

State administrative rules explicitly identify a portion of Kahaluu Bay as a surfing zone and forbids any commercial water sports instruction from being conducted in the bay’s waters without a state permit.

Those rules also say the department may issue no more than four permits for that zone for surf instruction and limit each surf school to a maximum of eight students per school in the water at a given time, with a maximum one-to-four ratio of instructor to students.

But many local surf school operators pushed back against the proposal, often citing the minimum bid as a deal breaker for business.

Moore said he didn’t submit a bid for the pilot program, saying the bid minimum would run him out of business in just the first six months.

“Financially, it was not even an option,” he said, “Not at $3,000 a month.”

Surf schools are affected by tourism numbers and ocean conditions, he noted, and even if a month’s business is bad, he’d still have to pay $3,000 to cover the fee.

The program will be managed by The Kohala Center, selected by the county through a separate bid process. The monthly fees from the four surf schools would generate at least $144,000 a year for the program, the minimum budget that the Kahaluu Bay Education Center’s director Cindi Punihaole previously said she could develop for the program. The Kahaluu Bay Education Center is a project of The Kohala Center.

The Kohala Center is required under its agreement with the county to reinvest all the money it collects back into the surf school program. The fees would pay for a full-time and part-time education ranger and a supervisor.

Punihaole said that’s the minimum needed to have someone stationed at the beach throughout the week.

There is no specific date by which officials have said they plan to start the pilot program.

Moore on Wednesday said he’s “just been given the runaround” from both the county and The Kohala Center when he’s asked for updates, saying each continuously refers him to the other.

When West Hawaii Today reached out to The Kohala Center, Punihaole referred questions about the bid status and how many bids had been received to the county Department of Parks and Recreation. That agency said bid results “are still under review” and that additional details could not be provided at the time.

Ben Callaghan, who runs Kahaluu Bay Surf and Sea, declined to say whether he had submitted a bid for the program and also said he hasn’t heard anything new about the proposed regulations.

“Not a single thing,” Callaghan said Thursday. “Ever since all the uproar it’s been absolutely quiet, not even a buzz around here even.”

Callaghan said he hasn’t reached out to the county or The Kohala Center, saying, “it’s actually been nice not having to hear about it every single day and stress about it.”

While Callaghan said it’d be nice if the county and The Kohala Center would acknowledge the opposition to what’s being proposed and consider different approaches, he said the issue has put focus on surf school operations at the bay.

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And if there is a silver lining in any of the controversy, Callaghan said, it’s that he’s seen “noticeable improvement” in how surf schools have been doing business.

“It seems like everyone’s taking a lot more care and pride in how they operate and making sure safety is always number one,” he said. “And we’ve always done that, but I think it’s definitely stepped up a level from everyone since then.”

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