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Surf school management proposal raises concerns

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today

    Visitors learn to surf at Kahalu‘u Beach Park in Kailua-Kona.

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

Peppered throughout the waters off the beach often are students from 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. today at the West Hawaii Civic Center council chambers in Kailua-Kona. State and county officials will be there to field questions.

A surf school program will be managed by The Kohala Center, which won an earlier bid to operate it. The program would authorize up to four surf schools to offer lessons at Kahalu‘u, 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. Feb. 20.

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

Cindi Punihaole, director of Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center, a Kohala Center project, said the center’s 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 it to manage the surf school program.

The monthly fee collection isn’t meant to be a moneymaker for the group, said Punihaole and Reid Sewake, business manager for the county Department of Parks and Recreation. Sewake said The Kohala Center will file monthly financial reports to account for the fees taken in and reinvested.

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 operates 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.

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. He added that if that four-school mandate isn’t enforced, “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 thinks The Kohala Center is trying the best it can to build something that can work for everyone, he still sees some gray areas he hopes get cleared up at today’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, 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 violations, which should be reported to the county or state. He said the county is committed to enforcing the rules if violations arise.

Besides monitoring the park, Punihaole said the center also will be exploring how the program can develop into the future.

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.

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

Email Cameron Miculka at cmiculka@westhawaiitoday.com.