Is it really a good idea to build a new Aloha Stadium?
by Jonathan Helton, Grassroot Institute, Oct 13, 2023
Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium had a long run of hosting sporting events, music concerts and other community activities — including an ongoing swap meet in its parking lot.
Now that the old stadium is scheduled for demolition, many politicians and Hawaii residents want the state to build a new one.
But many others think the project will be a big waste of money and isn’t really needed anyway.
The old stadium, for example, relied heavily on taxpayer subsidies. Between fiscal years 2019 and 2022, it had a total operating loss of $13.58 million — $684,000 in fiscal 2022, $3.8 million in fiscal 2021, $6.6 million in fiscal 2020, and $2.5 million in fiscal 2019.
Considering the record of the old Aloha Stadium, there are many questions about the plans for a new one, including about how much it might cost, when it might open, and whether it would be yet another burden on Hawaii taxpayers.
Why did the Aloha Stadium close?
The original Aloha Stadium hosted its first event in September 1975 and closed in January 2021.
A spokesman for the Aloha Stadium Authority said the decision to close the stadium was made “due to economic conditions stemming from COVID-19 safety restrictions.” But also, the almost 50-year-old stadium was covered in rust, proving hard to maintain and repair with Hawaii’s salty tropical breezes. When it closed, the stadium needed an estimated $30 million in maintenance.
In its long history, the stadium hosted many unique events, including the Pro Bowl, which the state of Hawaii paid $4 million a year to host. The University of Hawai‘i’s Rainbow Warriors football team also played there regularly, but now uses its own on-campus Clarence T.C. Ching Field.
How much would a new Aloha Stadium cost?
Cost estimates for the new Aloha Stadium have varied significantly in recent years. Currently, the new Aloha Stadium is projected to cost $400 million, to be paid for by Hawaii taxpayers.
This new estimate is much lower than an earlier $1.5 billion price tag estimated by project consultants. That estimate led Hawaii Gov. Josh Green to simplify the stadium plans of his predecessor, Gov. David Ige.
Ige’s original plans for the new Aloha Stadium included an entertainment district around the stadium, complete with shops, restaurants and housing. It was to be built and managed by a plethora of private and state organizations — although Ige attempted to redo the entire plan just weeks before leaving office.
Gov. Green scrapped this plan in March 2023, shifting to a simpler plan for a stadium built by one private company, which would share management over the area with the existing Aloha Stadium Authority. Green said the entertainment district and housing could be built around the stadium site later.
The state of Hawaii has already paid consultants more than $20 million to draw up plans for the new stadium. Meanwhile, the University of Hawaiʻi has paid almost $40 million to upgrade its Clarence T.C. Ching Field.
How big would a new Aloha Stadium be?
The old Aloha Stadium seated 50,000 fans, making it the largest sports and entertainment venue in the state.
The new stadium is projected to have 25,000 seats, according to the plan introduced by Gov. Green. By comparison, Ching Field at the UH-Manoa campus seats just more than 15,000 people. The university says an expansion to seat almost 17,000 people is in the works.
When would a new Aloha Stadium open?
Before Gov. Green revamped the former Gov. Ige’s plans for the stadium, state officials were saying building a new stadium and an entertainment district around it could take 20 years to complete.
Currently, state officials believe the new stadium will be completed before the 2028 football season; however, the opening date keeps getting pushed back.
In June 2022, for example, the state set 2026 as the opening date. Before the COVID-19 lockdowns, in 2020, the new stadium was supposed to welcome fans by the 2023 football season.
Curt Otaguro, comptroller of the state Department of Accounting and General Services told Spectrum News in July 2022 that supply chain issues contributed to multiple changes in plans for the stadium and entertainment district, which have in turn set back the opening date.
Pros and cons of a new stadium
Proponents of a new Aloha Stadium have high hopes it would draw entertainers and professional sports teams from across the world for exhibition events, including concerts, football games and rugby.
Commenting on the original plans for the new stadium in September 2022, Hawaii state Sen. Glenn Wakai, who represents the district where the old stadium sits, said the proposed Aloha Stadium Entertainment District “is a prime example of efforts to entice private investments, to turn a 98-acre parking lot into one of the most lucrative assets for the state.”
Urban planning graduate and former UH football player Scott Marshall wrote in September 2023, “Hawaii has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a stadium that will not only serve sports fans and concertgoers, but a much broader coalition of community stakeholders.”
On the flip side, others are leery.
“I don’t want the stadium to be another rail project where costs spiral out of control and taxpayers are on the hook,” said Hawaii House Speaker Scott Saiki in early March 2023.
Former Hawaii legislative analyst John Kawamoto wrote in 2021 that “large sums of money are involved, and as a result, developers, construction companies, construction unions and financial institutions stand to profit — even if the project ultimately flops. It’s the rest of us who stand to lose.”
Also critical of building a new Aloha Stadium is Citizens Against Government Waste, based in Washington, D.C. Researcher Ryan Lanier pointed out in July 2022 that “decades of studies have shown that publicly financed stadiums, even those that include housing and retail projects, do not bring in enough money to offset public investments.”
Where does the proposed stadium stand now?
Gov. Green’s plan for a new Aloha Stadium calls for a private developer to build the stadium and entertainment district, but many private sector companies are wary of a long-term commitment to construct or run a large sports venue in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
“There is, in general, market interest in the project,” the New Aloha Stadium Entertainment District team concluded in September 2023. “However, this is strongly qualified or abated by significant concerns regarding the project’s financial feasibility,”
The same analysis pointed to a “limited number of service providers” who had the resources to bid on or operate a project of this scale. But at the moment, there is no commitment from any private companies to proceed in partnership with the state to build a new Aloha Stadium.
So will a new Aloha Stadium ever be built? If so, when, how much will it cost, and will it be a financial success or another boondoggle that will burden Hawaii taxpayers for generations to come?
The jury is still out on these important questions.