Let's Privatize Hawaii's Small Boat Harbors

Water Ways
Honolulu Star Bulletin (12/06/97)
By Ray Pendleton

As the ongoing debate over the best way to manage some, or all, of Hawaii's "small boat harbor" marinas intensifies, several questions come to mind.

For instance, other than commercial operators and subsistence fishermen, don't most people consider a boat a luxury? That is, isn't it primarily a nonessential device used for recreation, like a bicycle or a bowling ball?

Granted - unlike cyclists or bowlers - there are boaters who choose to live aboard their recreational devices, but in practice and by harbor rules, they are a small minority.

Whether a boat is used for fishing, sailing, living, racing, cruising, or just speeding around punching holes in the water, its ownership and storage, nevertheless, is not a critical social concern is as, say, low cost housing or feeding the homeless.

Why then, does our state essentially subsidize recreational boating by sustaining mooring fees at rates considerably below what is needed to maintain - much less improve - those facilities?

And particularly when there is a multi-year-long list of prospective mooring renters waiting to fill in vacancies, why isn't the state abiding to the law of supply and demand by charging commensurate rates?

Doesn't it also appear that this policy of maintaining an artificially low cost to boaters has in some ways amplified the general malaise of Hawaii's boating industry? With no new marinas, and with most existing moorings filled, the only new boats being sold are outboards on trailers.

Some argue that the state should continue to operate the marinas because otherwise, in the hands of private enterprise, mooring costs will go up some 300 percent.

But how would a company stay in business if it priced its goods or services out of reach of its customers? There are boaters waiting for slips, but you can bet there is a limit to how much they would pay.

An executive of a private marina management company told me that moderate increases in slip fees from their current level would be inevitable, but he felt the improvements to the facilities would likely overshadow any rate hike. He also indicated that less desirable locations - for instance Keehi Lagoon, due to airport noise - would be priced less than the more sought after Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor.

There has also been concern voiced by some that if a "cash cow" like the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor were to be privatized, its current de facto subsidizing of the state's smaller, less affluent boat harbors would disappear.

To that, I would ask, why would the state not expect at least as much revenue - minus overhead costs - to be generated through a lease agreement with a private management company as it presently collects on its own?

With the state out of the marina management business, it might discover more funds available for not only the small, rural harbors, but for new marina development, boating safety programs and marine law enforcement - all of which are sadly lacking now.

Clearly, nationwide, when it comes to marinas, governments generally do what they do best. They create the harbors, provide for the public's health and safety, and lease their waterfront property to the private sector to do what it does best - run the marinas in a businesslike fashion.

Might there be good reasons for this very common practice?

Last week's Column -|- More Water Ways

Hele On