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Golfers oppose mayor’s plan to shut down Waiehu course

Leslie Hondo of Wailuku finishes the ninth hole alongside daughter Eunice Kunishige of Kihei on Friday afternoon at Waiehu Municipal Golf Course. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

WAIEHU — Mayor Alan Arakawa’s proposed shutdown of the 87-year-old Waiehu Municipal Golf Course drew the ire of Maui golfers, who praised the course for its beauty and affordability.

The mayor made the proposal during his State of the County address Thursday night, saying that the course is losing nearly $3 million a year and has lost $16.3 million over the last decade. His announcement shocked the golf community.

“The mayor has to come out here and look at what’s going on before making a remark like that because I don’t think anybody wants this place shut down,” Leslie Hondo of Wailuku said Friday.

The 6,330-yard golf course is the cheapest place to play on the island — with county residents paying $13 for 18 holes on weekdays and $18 on weekends. Seniors pay $8 and $12, and students pay $2 and $3, respectively.

Arakawa’s proposal was all that golfers were talking about outside the pro shop Friday morning, starter Windy Ige said. He said workers were notified of the possible shutdown about a week and half ago so as not to be caught off guard by the mayor’s announcement.

Stephanie LeRoux (left) and husband Freedom Deshincoe (right) of Kihei enjoy a round of golf Friday afternoon with Phoenix visitor Doug Kramer at Waiehu Municipal Golf Course. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

“They (players) all came up saying, ‘What’s going to happen,’ thinking we have firsthand knowledge,” Ige said.

The starter said he did not know what will happen to the course.

A call to county Parks & Recreation Director Kaala Buenconsejo was not returned Friday afternoon, but he said after the mayor’s address that “it’s not about shutting the golf course down” but rather “being fiscally responsible and finding more solutions for the revenue loss.”

About 150 players hit the county links a day, and the majority of them told Ige on Friday that they would be willing to pay more to keep the course open. The course only earned $1 million last year and spent $4 million, the mayor said.

“If that’s what it comes down to, they’re willing to pay,” Ige said. “For the locals at 3 o’clock, they pay $5 for nine holes. I think we’re probably the cheapest in the nation. You can’t beat the rates, that’s just it.”

Hondo, who was playing a round with his daughter, Eunice Kunishige, on Friday afternoon, said he has been playing at the county course since high school — 45 years. He said he recently retired from the county and knows Arakawa personally but disagreed with his proposal.

“For us, the people that golf, it means a lot,” Hondo said. “Look at the course, it’s full of people. I don’t know what the people are going to do.”

Not everyone can afford to play golf in Wailea or at Maui Lani, which goes for locals and tourists, Hondo said. He said “even in a bad state” the Waiehu course is a better deal than paying $50 to $75 at other courses.

Hondo also pointed to the historic nature of the course. It opened on New Year’s in 1930 as the first municipal golf links in the Territory of Hawaii. Currently, there are municipal courses on Hawaii island, Kauai and Oahu.

“It’s a county facility that is for the people,” he said.

Chuck Davis of Kihei said he was open to the county raising prices, despite the course being funded by taxpayers. He also was open to a private operator taking over.

“It’s just too nice of a course to let it go,” Davis said. “I know people who come here for no other reason than to come to this golf course. You have all but three or four holes where you can’t see the ocean. It doesn’t get any better.”

The county has spent the past few years improving the course, Ige said. He said it began when golf course superintendent Todd Allen took charge three or four years ago.

“When the course was in bad shape people were saying, ‘Ah maybe we should just let them lease it or privatize it.’ ” Ige said. “But now the course has gotten into really good shape, everyone’s really pleased with it and now they’re talking about closing it.”

Davis also recognized the improvements, saying that the course had looked “terrible” with bald spots on the fairways and greens that were not very green.

“This is our staple,” he said, next to his wife, Debbie. “The greens are true, and I mean yeah, they’re not as lush as some other ones, but it’s still a fun course to play, and it’d just be a shame to lose it.”

Freedom Deshincoe and his wife, Stephanie LeRoux, said they made a special trip to the course after watching the news Thursday night of the possible closure. The couple only play five to seven times a year, but because of the news Deshincoe took the day off.

“Any day of golf is a better day than work,” he joked.

The couple’s 13-year-old son, Kai, regularly plays at the course and pays a special $20 per month student rate. LeRoux said that the municipal course is one of the few places her son can play that is close and affordable.

“It was just really upsetting because we bring our son here, and it’s the most affordable place to play for locals,” she said. “I hope something changes, and they realize how valuable this is to the residents because it really is.”

Arakawa said Thursday that he is looking at investing “a couple hundred thousand dollars” to subsidize senior and junior golfers to play at other courses. About 65,000 rounds of golf are played at the Waiehu course each year, with a great majority by residents.

Golfers were not the only ones surprised to hear of the proposed shutdown. Owners of the Fatt Chicks Burgers restaurant, which shares the same building as the pro shop and locker rooms, heard the county’s plans Thursday night on the news Tootsie Davis, who runs the eatery with her wife, Bonny, said she has no idea what will happen to her business in the next couple years. She said their five-year lease ends in 2019; county officials told her they planned to bulldoze all the buildings, including the restaurant, pro shop and locker room, and build a new facility when the lease ends.

Davis said they have been given the option to rebid after the reconstruction, but they are not sure if they will stay. For the past two years, the restaurant has complained to the county about electrical issues, leaks and grease seeping into the ground and moving to the shoreline, she said.

“We’re not sure what’s happening, but we still get the runaround,” she said.

Despite the issues, the location has “worked out really nicely” due to Yelp, TripAdvisor and social media sites, Davis said. She worries that Arakawa’s words may scare people away, which is unfortunate because she has seen her restaurant become a “go-to place for a lot of visitors.”

“We’re blessed to have wonderful community sponsorship,” she said. “They love what they eat and love the people that serve them and we’re always thankful.”

Ige said that the mayor’s announcement will actually drive up the number of golfers playing at the course. He said today will likely set the tone.

“Starting (Saturday), that’s when all the weekend warriors will be out, and they’ll be talking in force for sure,” he said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

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