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Hawaii looks to sports for economic boost

  • Story Highlights
  • NFL's Pro Bowl will return to Hawaii in 2011
  • Mayor hopes Chicago gets the Olympics -- and that attendees stop off in Hawaii
  • Hawaii's economy is heavily dependent on tourism
  • One writer questions the cost of hosting the Pro Bowl
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By Tricia Escobedo
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (CNN) -- Battered by the current economic recession, Hawaii's economy could get a strong boost from two key sporting events.

Tourism is by far the Aloha State's largest industry -- bringing in between $10 billion and $12 billion annually.

The Pro Bowl this year was played at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. It will return there in 2011.

The National Football League's Pro Bowl Game will return to Honolulu in 2011 -- an event that is expected to bring millions of dollars in revenue.

Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann is also hoping to lure the 31st Summer Olympic Games -- but not to his city. He's actively supporting Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Games.

"How does that play out for Hawaii? Well, obviously if we get the Olympics -- that is (the) USA -- we benefit from a Discover America campaign that we'd like to see with visitors coming prior to Chicago to Hawaii or after, and visiting other parts of our country," the mayor said.

"What I really want to do is promote Hawaii as a great place for some of these teams to come and do a little R&R (rest and relaxation) or training before they go on to the Olympics in Chicago."

Hannemann will head to Chicago, Illinois, this weekend to court International Olympics Committee members, who are in the Windy City to evaluate its plan to host the Games. On October 2, the IOC will choose among Chicago; Madrid, Spain; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; or Tokyo, Japan, as the 2016 host city.

Hannemann co-chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Olympic Task Force, along with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, which he said aims "to bring the Olympics to America in 2016."

Hawaii's economy is heavily dependent on tourism, and the economic recession means fewer people are visiting the island state.

With three-quarters of the state's population living in Honolulu, Hannemann said, workers are especially hit hard in the capital city.

"The slowdown in tourism has resulted in shorter hours, in some cases even a decrease in their wages, and hopefully a last resort is some of them are being laid off as a result of some of these businesses going out of business," he said.

"So our job is just to continue to do what we can to work with private industry to shore up the tourism industry. It is our No. 1 industry, nothing comes close."

Tourism accounts for between $10 billion and $12 billion each year compared to Hawaii's second-largest industry, which is military spending, according to Hannemann. That accounts for between $3 billion and $4 billion annually, the mayor said.

Last month, the Hawaii Tourism Authority voted to allow the NFL's Pro Bowl game to return to Hawaii in 2011 and 2012. The game has been held the week after the Super Bowl at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu since 1980, and has sold out every time. Next year, it will take place in Miami, Florida, before the Super Bowl -- raising concerns that it will not be as much of a draw because no Super Bowl players will participate in the game.

Hawaii authorities agreed to allow the game to return to the state under the condition that the NFL would consider returning the Pro Bowl to the Sunday after the Super Bowl "depending on the success, or failure, of the 2010 game in Miami," according to the NFL.

Hannemann said the tens of thousands of people who attend the game annually have then spent "at least $30 million" across the state of Hawaii. Losing the game would not only be an economic loss for the state, but a "major downer" for residents, he said.

"People (have) said, 'Oh, my goodness, now we lost the Pro Bowl. We've had it here for over 20 years, it's been a sell-out. What's going on here? ... Everything's going to go out of Hawaii,' " Hannemann said. "So I got involved, I went and talked to some of the commissioners there, I changed their votes, and we're able to keep the Pro Bowl here."

But hosting the Pro Bowl will come at a cost. Hawaii will have to pay $4 million each year it hosts the game. In a recent commentary in the East Oahu Sun newspaper, writer Joe Edwards questioned whether the cost of hosting the game would come at the expense of projects more vital to residents -- such as a long-awaited rail transit project.

"Don't get me wrong: I like the Pro Bowl. I've been to several. It's a great show. But our own citizens, and our own football team, should come well before the NFL," Edwards wrote.

Hannemann insists that despite the recession, he will be able to deliver on his campaign promise of a public rail system in Honolulu, which is scheduled to break ground this year.

"Even under the rubric of a stimulus package, we're going to get some monies there to push this out," Hannemann said, noting that Hawaii's senior U.S. senator, Daniel Inouye, is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He also said the measure is supported by President Barack Obama, who was born and grew up in Hawaii.

"These are tough times, but if there's a necessary project -- what I call a need-to-have versus a nice-to-have -- I'm going to make all the justification in the world and then we're going to do it," he said.

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