Uncivil War At Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor was never very visitorfriendly until Patrick Brent came along, but jealousy of other attractions is driving out his two-year-old center
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Brent snaps a photo of a couple in front of the Marine
When the venerable old Ford Island ferries finally gave up their vehicles and passengers to the Admiral Cleary Causeway, the Halawa Landing - sandwiched between the USS Arizona Visitor Center and the USS Bowfin Submarine Memorial and Museum - degenerated into a shabby, unkempt parking lot with scattered trash and broken glass.
But that was then, and today’s lunchtime crowds of USS Arizona, USS Bowfin, USS Missouri and Pacific Aviation Museum visitors packed into the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center (PHVC) have no clue they are standing exactly where the cars and trucks used to que up for the ferry.
And at the water’s edge, the man who created the PHVC, Patrick Brent - businessman, Marine veteran and dedicated patriot - also built a Marine memorial that was dedicated by the commandant of the Marine Corps., thus adding another attraction at Pearl.
The PHVC itself is a huge, white, state-of-the-art tent shading 5,000 square feet of tarmac, housing vendors, food, souvenirs and services, modeled on the “expeditionary” style of a Marine Corp operation - all the advantages of permanence but moveable on a moment’s notice.
“Expeditionary ONE,” Brent calls his entrepreneurial brainchild. He is indeed the consummate entrepreneur - see a need, fill it, make a profit. That ethos has brought him a long string of creative business successes, from airline reservation systems to data storage to luxury yacht rentals. His entrepreneurial antennae are always scanning; it’s in his blood.
In this case, the “need” was the near vacuum of conveniences and services for the tens of thousands of annual visitors to the historic sites of Pearl Harbor, the Arizona Visitor Center being the primary gathering point. For years, the National Park Service (NPS) - which runs the center, only using Navy personnel to conn the shuttle boats to and from the actual memorial - has taken its visitors for granted. It’s provided a minimum of comforts and services.
Visitors, with waits of two or three hours or more, might spend a half hour browsing the museum and the bookstore, but no other activities are offered. Restrooms were limited and lines were common. Refreshments were limited to cold, pre-wrapped sandwiches and soft drink machines, and then no comfortable, shady place to eat. The only seating is on uncomfortable concrete benches. The Bowfin Memorial offered hot dogs. For a family to find a decent lunch, a drive or bus ride to Aiea was the option. Post 9-11 security excluded purses, backpacks or luggage, so visitors could be blind-sided with the unexpected need for storage, their only alternative being makeshift storage in a shipping container across the shabby parking lot - so check your bag, then get back in line!
Brent decided he could do better - much better. In February of 2005, he subleased the 6.6-acre Halawa Landing from Ford Island Ventures Inc., which held the lease. Within days he had the old parking lot spotless, the tent was up, and electrical generators and plumbing followed. He converted the old ferry security office - the only structure on the parcel - into clean, modern restrooms. He filled the tent and its approaches with new, ergonomically designed table and bench units. Concession booths were built out on a WWII South Pacific theme, O.D. green in color, thatched roofs, and signage in G.I. stencil. WWII military artifacts were scattered around. Unit pennants and “Kilroy was here!” scribbles added to the authenticity. Ambient 1942 music and patriotic “Buy Bonds” and Rosie the Riveter posters would be favorites of the visiting WWII vets.
Patrick Brent gave the new
visitors center a 1942
Brent selected the vendors for quality and service, structuring rents and percentages like a shopping mall. They took military-themed names such as “Shore Patrol” and “Chow Hall” and they cover the gamut from hamburgers cooked by a gourmet chef to soft ice cream and fruit smoothies, from sunglasses and Koa jewelry to coffee, breakfast snacks and necessities like Band-Aids. Upright placards on every table encourage visitors to tour all the historical sites, and vendors sell no items in competition with those partners.
Marine vet Brent demanded impeccable dress and grooming standards - no weird piercings or prominent tattoos - for his “crew members.” All completed “fast-paced Boot Camp Training in customer service, personal responsibility, self-confidence and teamwork.”
Rain or shine, the “Tent” jumps with tourists awaiting their tours at the Arizona or enroute to another historical site. The vendors are usually jammed and the tables are packed - some with families of six or seven. Visitor “comment cards” have been overwhelmingly positive.
The “need” has been filled and all should be happy, right?
Not so fast ...
The installation and immediate success of Brent’s operation took the leadership of the other historical sites by surprise. The new “for-profit” PHVC was instantly misperceived as direct competition with their “nonprofit” operations. The competition for the visitor dollar, it seemed, took precedence over the needs and comfort of the the visitors themselves. Although few of the leaders - directors and board members - of the other entities actually visited “Expeditionary ONE,” rumors began to circulate: “Crass commercialization!” “Defiling hallowed ground!” “He’s (Brent) putting us out of business!”
Ironically, Brent says, as the grumblers would finally come to see the center for themselves, the most common comment was, “Oh, this isn’t like I thought it would be.”
Nevertheless, because many of the critics were retired military and prominent in the community, the rumors circulated higher, to the commander of Navy Region Hawaii, whose predecessor had concurred with the PHVC on the leased land; to the Western Region director of the National Park Service, and even to Hawaii’s Congressional delegation. The pressure actually became so great that the Navy, at the expense of significant lease and value concessions to Ford Island Ventures, took back the 6.6 acres, and agreed to hand over the property to the Park Service on May 1 of this year, ostensibly so the NPS - according to the Western Region director himself
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