On Dec. 7, 2010, the 69th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the National Park Service dedicated a new $56 million USS Arizona Memorial visitor center with a sprawling campus to handle increasing numbers of tourists at one of the nation's most revered attractions.
The sunken battleship remains the gravesite for most of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed in the aerial attack.
But less than four years later, landscaping is overgrown and neglected at the visitor center, walkway paint is peeling and a big map of the Pacific on a prominent walkway has turned a dirty and scuffed blue.
Several years ago, a tourist climbed the USS Arizona anchor that's on the campus grounds, toppled off and hit his head.
The decision was made to place a permanent barricade, but years later, temporary stanchions encircle only a portion of the big anchor, and there is no sign saying "keep off."
Part of the problem stems from government funding that has dropped from $3.75 million in 2010 to $3.47 million in 2013 and $3.49 million this year, leading to staff shortages at the same time attendance at Hawaii's No. 1 tourist attraction has jumped to nearly 1.8 million visitors a year.
But some past and present employees say priorities are out of whack, and blame Superintendent Paul DePrey for inattention to maintenance and staffing issues, with morale and accountability taking a hit.
DePrey said by email that "the park management team has taken a number of actions to improve," including regular communication and meetings with all employees, regular meetings with neighboring historic park partners, and notifications to tour operators.
At a time when the budget is such a concern, the decision was made to rent office and collection space for three years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility on Ford Island for DePrey and several other memorial employees at a cost of $139,909 a year.
DePrey's tenure also has been marked by multiple Park Service investigations into Arizona Memorial operations in recent years, including the sale of entry tickets that were supposed to be free, according to officials.
"It's sad, it's really sad, because when we opened that new visitor center, it was beautiful," said former park ranger Carolyn Knoll, who quit in late June. "I walked around there before I left and I thought, 'Geez, it looks like 10 to 15 years old here.'"
Where there were 13 or 14 park rangers several years ago, there are about six now, one official said. Knoll calls the Arizona Memorial a "dysfunctional" place with too much stress placed on too few park employees by lots of people funneling through a very small area.
"It's not like Yosemite or Yellowstone," which get more people but who are spread out over vast areas, Knoll said. At the Arizona Memorial, it's all very concentrated.
"Even if they had twice the staff, it's still a tough place to work," Knoll said.
DePrey, who became superintendent in 2008 of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (which includes the Arizona Memorial), points to visitation that he says has increased by nearly 100,000 people per year since 2010 as one of the reasons for the visitor center's already sagging appearance.
"Parts of the facility receive very intensive use by the millions of visitors who come to the site annually," DePrey said. "In some cases, the use was not anticipated by the NPS, but we are working hard to creatively solve those challenges."
THE SCUFFED and dirty map of the Pacific "is the subject of a review" to improve the exhibit, he said.
The National Park Service has also begun to review the grounds design with an eye to reducing maintenance, he said.
A permanent barricade for the anchor has been designed and "will be installed once delivered," DePrey said.
Asked how the Arizona Memorial can function efficiently when the number of park rangers has dropped and attendance has soared, the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service in California said: "Budget constraints in times of increased visitation are realities for many parks. The NPS must act with creativity in how it plans for and responds to these trends."
The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, which is the technical name for the facility, "has elements in its grounds that are challenging to manage due to landscaping realities in Hawaii," the regional office said in an email.
Ferns are being replaced with sod "to provide an overall improved experience."
But others say landscaping that was carefully chosen in the redevelopment plan has been neglected. Grass seems to have been left to grow unchecked in places, and dead foliage is not picked up.
The National Parks Conservation Association, which works to support the parks, said the Park Service has long struggled nationally with underfunding and "has been crippled by compounded budget cuts over recent years."
The fiscal 2014 budget brought some relief at both the Arizona Memorial and elsewhere, but, the conservation association notes, the funding "has been insufficient to bring parks back to where they were, and where they need to be" as the National Park Service looks forward to its centennial in 2016.
The issues run deeper at the Arizona Memorial, however.
Three investigations into park activities were launched by higher headquarters into morale issues, the diversion of some memorial tour free tickets to audio sales tours, and as a follow-up to the findings of the first two probes, officials said.
For about seven months in 2013, the Park Service and its nonprofit fundraising arm, Pacific Historic Parks, diverted a portion of what were supposed to be free tickets given out at the door for tours of the USS Arizona Memorial, and instead sold them with an audio tour for $6 apiece to tour companies, according to the Park Service's investigation and individuals familiar with the practice.
Each day a total of 4,350 tickets are available through an online reservation system, tour companies and at the door.
Some days, more than 700 tickets a day were pulled from the walk-up batch for sale to commercial operators, the investigation found.
The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act prohibits the Park Service from charging a fee to visit the memorial.
"Requiring purchase of the narrated audio tour to secure a ticket to the memorial appears to be in violation of the spirit of the law," investigators concluded.
DePrey said the money raised went to Pacific Historic Parks to help run the memorial. This year, Pacific Historic Parks has provided more than $750,000 in financial assistance and in-kind support to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, he said.
DePrey said he initially thought the ticket sale program was proper and legal, but was informed by park service officials that it was not.
"We stopped the program because I learned that I made a mistake," he said in June.
The investigation noted a loss of management control over USS Arizona Memorial tickets and perceptions of unethical business conduct.
Asked what action was taken as a result of multiple investigations at the Arizona Memorial, the Pacific West Region office said: "Actions specific to personnel investigations are not disclosed."
The agency did say the park is working on a "corrective action plan," including holding "ethical conduct training" with ticketing and commercial services scenarios.
John Landrysmith, a former park guide at the memorial who quit in February after three years, said the chief of maintenance "doesn't get what she is asking for as far as personnel, as far as equipment, as far as what it takes to actually keep the place up."
Landrysmith questions why DePrey always says "he doesn't have it in the budget to have enough staffing on hand" when he is spending nearly $140,000 a year for offices on Ford Island.
DePrey, who came from Joshua Tree National Park in California as chief of resources management, said he has an office and four other Park Service employees work on Ford Island.
Asked why adequate office space wasn't built into the new $56 million visitor center, DePrey said emphasis was placed on addressing deficiencies experienced by visitors.
"As cost increases were realized over the design phase of the project, administrative needs were secondary to visitor needs," he said.
Interim office and collection space on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam that was in use has to revert to military operations, he said. The NOAA facility also is used for collection space. A longer-term solution is needed, and the park service is working on it, DePrey said.
The Pacific West Region office defended the use of the NOAA space and the job DePrey has done over his six-year tenure.
Administrative office space and storage for the 62,000 items in the park's collection "are not discretionary decisions," the office said, adding the NOAA building is a "needed facility."
Over the past six years, DePrey "has guided the NPS operations at Pearl Harbor with an eye to enhancing preservation and interpretation of Pacific War history," the Pacific West Region office said.
According to the office, DePrey:
- Oversaw the construction and opening of the new Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and museum exhibits, with minimal closures or interruptions to visitors.
- Guided the development and installation of the Sadako Sasaki origami crane and postwar Japan exhibits, which included more than $60,000 in donations from the community.
- Directed a condition assessment of the park's historic structures and took immediate steps in emergency stabilization for the historic chief petty officer bungalows on Ford Island.
- Landrysmith said DePrey isn't even frequently at the visitor center, while Knoll, who worked at the memorial since early 2011, said he's not like previous superintendents who were more engaged.
- "They were at the front ticket office when we were short-handed, handing out tickets and they were like, 'How are you today?'" with visitors, Knoll said. DePrey "isn't a 'people people.' He's just not," she said.
Knoll said DePrey's hands-off approach with some issues has allowed other staffers to do whatever they want.
"I think he needs to refocus," she said.
© 2014 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser Distributed by MCT Information Services.