Mayor cites code violations, suggests Merrie Monarch groups use Mauna Kea facilities

HILO — Big Island Mayor Harry Kim has informed the Merrie Monarch Festival it no longer will be allowed to house halau competing in the festival’s hula competition to stay in county gymnasiums.

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HILO — Big Island Mayor Harry Kim has informed the Merrie Monarch Festival it no longer will be allowed to house halau competing in the festival’s hula competition to stay in county gymnasiums.

An Aug. 9 letter from Kim to Merrie Monarch President Luana Kawelu said the longstanding practice is being discontinued because overnight stays in the gyms violate fire and building codes.

“The Fire Department was doing their job,” Kim said Thursday. “They stated this is not a permitted facility as far as overnight camping or stays at these facilities. … We cannot allow this because of concerns for safety.”

Kim said the decision was made a week or two before the letter was sent and he hasn’t yet spoken to Merrie Monarch officials.

According to Kim, four halau slept in county gyms during this year’s festival. He said he was told by the Hawaii Fire Department prior to this year’s Merrie Monarch the overnight stays were code violations. He said he allowed the gym stays during this year’s festival, but required halau to provide a 24-hour fire watch because notice was short and the halau had been good tenants.

The mayor acknowledged he also had allowed halau to sleep at county gyms during his two previous terms between 2000 and 2008 because he didn’t know then such stays violated the fire code.

“And that’s obviously my fault,” he said.

The letter said during the 2017 festival, Kawananakoa Gym in Keaukaha housed 24 people for one night and 25 for eight nights, Waiakea Recreation Center housed 25 people for one night, Waiakea Uka Gym housed 51 people for four nights and Papaikou Gym housed 35 people for four nights.

“The restriction/constraint regarding the use of the gym as a sleeping space is the need for fire sprinklers. The codes also require audio/visual fire alarms. These are not commonly present in older buildings, and therefore, upgrades would be required to accommodate sleeping,” Kim wrote.

Kim’s letter didn’t mention the recent fire that killed three people in Honolulu’s Marco Polo condominium, but he referred to it while talking about it with Big Island newspapers. The high-rise was built in 1971, before the law required sprinklers, and had not been retrofitted because of the cost.

“Things like that reminds you that what you’re doing is right,” Kim said.

The letter said an exception the county previously used to house halau in gyms was intended only for school facilities. It noted that only Kawananakoa Gym, which is adjacent to Ka Ana Laahana Public Charter School, is on school grounds, but also is governed by a lease agreement with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands that prohibits food, drink and overnight stays.

The next Merrie Monarch week is April 1-7, 2018, with the free Wednesday night Hoike on April 4 and the three-night hula competition from April 5-7.

Kim’s letter offered visiting halau the use of the bunkhouses and cabins at Mauna Kea Recreation Area, a state facility administered by the county.

“There are two bunkhouses, capable of holding 24 people each, plus seven cabins, capable of holding six people each, for a total of 90 people. Each bunkhouse and cabin has its own bathroom with shower. There is potable water, a dining hall, and ample parking,” the letter stated.

Kim said the only problem with the Mauna Kea cabins is the 36-mile distance from the Edith Kanakaole Multi-Purpose Stadium, where the hula competition takes place. He said the county also will offer to store halaus’ equipment, since the cabins have no storage areas.

The letter said the county “recognizes and fully supports the cultural and historical significance of the MMF, and is aware of the shortage of accommodations available for this important event.”

Hilo’s two largest hotels, the Grand Naniloa and Hilo Hawaiian, already are fully booked for Merrie Monarch week and the Pagoda Hilo Bay Hotel, formerly Uncle Billy’s, was permanently closed in June when it was determined the building had electrical and fire code violations, termite damage, beds in a stairwell and open ceilings.

Kathy Kawelu, one of the festival’s directors, said in an email that Merrie Monarch officials became aware of the letter Wednesday.

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“The letter came to the office over the weekend, so we only checked our mailbox after hearing about the letter from someone who had seen the posts on Facebook,” Kathy Kawelu wrote. “We’re trying to work on a solution, to be sure we take care of the halau.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com and Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.