Major surf contests in jeopardy after city permit change rejected

NORTH SHORE, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has rejected a World Surf League request to swap permits for two contests on the North Shore — a decision the organization says could force it to pull its championship tour competitions from Hawaii.

One City Councilman has called the decision a "black eye" for the state, and the league says it was initially told it could make the change.

Caldwell, however, says it's an issue of fairness.

In a final decision in a letter sent to the WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt on Tuesday, Caldwell said he doesn't have the authority to allow for any last-minute changes to the permitting process. He said it wouldn't be fair to the other organizations that also apply to use North Shore beaches for surf contests.

Caldwell maintained that the WSL failed to submit changes to its permit application by November as required by the city Department of Parks and Recreation's rules.

Instead, Caldwell is encouraging the WSL to consider implementing the changes they requested for the 2020 winter surf season. City officials say they're even willing to consider a multi-year deal so the league doesn't have to go through this process every year.

"Please know the city fully appreciates the economic spending the WSL brings to the islands, but as I've stated, this is an issue about fairness, not about money. You have stated that the changes are minor, and if this is truly the case, we are perplexed that you would jeopardize your relationship to Hawaii on a minor change. I sincerely hope the WSL will continue to hold events in Hawaii, the birthplace of the sport of surfing," Caldwell wrote.

At stake is the Billabong Pipe Masters, which WSL officials wanted to move from from its traditional window in December to a January waiting period instead, which the World Surf League had already applied to reserve a permit for with a different event, the Volcom Pipe Pro.

WSL officials said the swap would involve no increase in competition length or the dates in which the contests are held, but would provide a greater opportunity for local surfers to qualify for the championship tour by moving the first event of the season to Hawaii.

But the city says it's not that simple.

"We do believe that the Volcom event is a completely different event from the Pipe Masters, and I think the thing we're most concerned about is the impact to the community -- the size of the event and what kind of traffic," said Georgette Deemer, the city's deputy managing director.

WSL also wanted to relocate the Maui Women's Pro to the North Shore and run it in conjunction with the Men's Vans World Cup at Sunset Beach, which the World Surf League has also already applied for a permit for. However, in order to accomplish this, WSL officials were asking to extend the competition window by one day from four to five.

WSL officials have not yet responded to Hawaii News Now's requests for comment Wednesday morning. However, WSL CEO Goldschmidt said Monday that the league has two weeks at most to resolve this dispute before they need to begin the process of moving the event somewhere else.

"Hawaii is very important to surfing. These changes are going to allow more opportunities for Hawaiian surfers and so it's really just very hard to understand. We're hopeful that we can find a solution and that we can continue to bring the best events to Hawaii where they deserve to be," Goldschmidt said.

"We've been coming to Hawaii for decades hosting these events, covering all the costs ourselves. We've never gotten any investment from the local government," Goldschmidt said.

WSL officials estimate they spend $7 million a year to stage and promote events in Hawaii, and the events themselves generate about $20 million in economic impacts.

City Council Chair Ernie Martin, who represents the North Shore, said he was disappointed to hear that after 47 consecutive years of hosting the Pipe Masters at Haleiwa, the WSL may d rop the event from Hawaii.

"While I understand the mayor's decision to not be able to accommodate the WSL's request, I'm nevertheless disappointed primarily because of the importance of these events not just to the North Shore, but to the state of Hawaii as a whole," Martin said.

"It's just another black eye for our state with respect to supporting these major sporting events. We lost the Pro Bowl a few years ago and if the WSL follows through and decides to take these events out of Hawaii, it's just another lost opportunity for us."

Other surf contests organizers applaud the mayor's decision.

"We're happy that the mayor is sticking to the rules and not bending because of financial power. We know of other contest directors who have dropped off their permit application like a minute after the deadline and were flat out denied," said Mahina Chillingworth, Da Hui board member.

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