A mainland company with 45 high-tech driving ranges worldwide wants to bring its  brand of golf to Honolulu with a $50 million facility at the Ala Wai Golf Course.

Topgolf and several local corporations were given a conditional award in May to redevelop the golf course’s aging driving range.

The four-story structure would contain about 108 bays, food concessions and lounge areas. Golfers would hit balls loaded with microchips that can track flight paths and determine who comes closest to targets spread around the range.

Think cosmic bowling for golf.

The project is expected to be a moneymaker for the city, according to documents provided by Topgolf’s local communications team, CommPac.

But it’s worrying people concerned about losing their views of Diamond Head. And some regular customers of the existing driving range don’t think they’ll like the prices or the party atmosphere of the new facility.

An artist’s rendering of an elevated driving range bay with a lounge area. Courtesy of Topgolf

“Most of the regulars said they won’t come back,” Abbey Rutledge, a manager at the range’s store, told Civil Beat. “Too expensive, they said.”

Prices for the Hawaii location may range from $30 to $70 per hour at each bay, according to project documents. At Topgolf’s Las Vegas location behind the MGM Grand, customers pay $45 to $90 an hour.

“I no think so!” said Oren Kotomori, one of the regulars at the course’s current ground-level range, after being told about the potential prices.

Documents originally submitted to neighborhood boards stated that Topgolf would set aside 20 bays with prices close to the current rates (about $8 for a bucket of 75 balls) for patrons with Hawaii ID. The new facility would also retain the range’s current opening time of 6 a.m. daily, the documents said.

An updated information sheet circulated by Topgolf says that “a number of bays” with kamaaina discounts will be made available for golfers who don’t want to use the technologies available in other bays.

“The City and Topgolf Hawaii are continuing to have discussions with various community stakeholders and will utilize this feedback to develop a plan responsive to the interests of current patrons,” the company says on the information sheet.

Golfers enjoy hitting some balls at the Ala Wai Driving Range.
The existing Ala Wai Golf Course driving range is generating less income for the city. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

City officials were not available for comment Monday.

Topgolf’s target audience is not the typical golfer. In a 2017 survey of Topgolf guests conducted by the National Golf Foundation, 70 percent said they were nongolfers. Of new golfers surveyed, the study found that 75 percent of them said Topgolf made them want to continue golfing.

Those numbers align with a letter from the city Department and Enterprise Services stating that the city would like to start targeting nongolfers.

For regulars like Kotomori, however, the new facility with its lights and music and games sounds better suited for a younger audience.

“But look around,” he said while scanning the half-empty bays on an early Friday morning. “Most of the people are retirement age.”

The closest options for residents who don’t want to use the new facility would be the Hawaii Kai Golf Course driving range or the Newtown driving range in Waimalu.

A Hole-In-One For Honolulu?

The Ala Wai Golf Course and its accompanying driving range has seen both usage and revenues decline. 

In 2016, golfers played about 128,000 rounds at the 145-acre course, down from 134,673 in 2015. From 2015 to 2016, driving range revenue dropped from $925,742 to $395,717, according to a 2017 city solicitation for proposals to improve the driving range.

Honolulu’s Department of Enterprise Services filed a request for information regarding a multi-tiered driving range facility in 2016. The city sent out a solicitation letter in December 2017 to which Topgolf responded with a 100-page proposal that snagged the conditional award in May.

The city is expected to receive 1 percent of the gross revenues from the new facility.

“Ultimately, we expect gross sales to be considerably higher than the current driving range operation,” the company said in a statement. “Therefore, we will be able to provide the City with significantly more revenue in terms of base rent, plus percentage of gross revenues.”

Projected revenue from rent payments and gross sales. Screenshot from Topgolf

Topgolf would also pay rent to the city that starts at just over $1 million a year. In the first 10 years of Topgolf’s proposed 20-year lease agreement, the city is expected to receive about $12.6 million in rent and revenue from the public-private partnership, according to the project proposal

The city would have the option of extending Topgolf’s lease for another 20 years beyond the initial agreement. The initial lease agreement and any extensions need approval by the Honolulu City Council.

At the end of the lease, the city would keep the facility, according to the proposal.

The city is currently spending $900,000 on golf course improvements as well as another $200,000 to improve the course’s Kapahulu Avenue entrance. In 2016, the city spent $1.3 million to revitalize the current driving range.

Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, whose district includes the Ala Wai Golf Course, said that the council will probably have a hearing on the Topgolf project, though she doesn’t know when that might take place.

Kobayashi said the feedback she’s gotten regarding the project hasn’t necessarily been outright opposition, but residents are concerned.

“If there’s too much community opposition, we shouldn’t move forward until we allay some of those concerns,” she said.

Some people are worried about the effect on sight lines to Diamond Head of the 170-foot poles Topgolf would put up for its safety nets.

Concept art of the proposed Topgolf Hawaii facility and surrounding Ala Wai Golf Course. Courtesy of Topgolf

George West, chairman of the neighborhood board for Diamond Head, Kapahulu and St. Louis Heights, said board members have a multitude of questions regarding traffic, lights and noise.

West said his board hasn’t taken a stand on the project. Neighborhood boards in the surrounding areas may have a joint meeting on the subject, he said.

Besides the lease approval, which the company estimates may take up to two years, Topgolf must still get several permits cleared with the city Department of Planning and Permitting and the state Board of Land and Natural Resources. Topgolf must also conduct an environmental assessment for the project.

Construction is expected to begin in July 2020 and conclude in December 2021.

“The people representing (Topgolf) are doing their best to make (the company) fit in,” Kobayashi said. 

Topgolf has employed several local companies to help with the project, including the architecture firm G70 as well as CommPac, a communications and marketing group, and the MacNaughton and Kobayashi Groups, two of Hawaii’s powerhouse development firms.

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