HILO — A historic Naalehu landmark remains in a sad state of neglect after years of failure by the property’s owners to maintain it.
The Naalehu Theater, built in 1925, has been disused since 2006 and fallen into severe disrepair. The property’s owners have evidently taken little to no effort to maintain the historic building.
“There’s a big hole in the roof and it’s getting bigger,” said Naalehu resident Glen Winterbottom. “The metal siding is rusting away slowly.”
Winterbottom has been attempting to spur action to preserve the historic building for years. Most recently, he drafted a letter to lawmakers, including Gov. David Ige, entreating them to take action.
“While well-maintained historic structures and attractions in the various small towns along the circle-island highway system would obviously tend to foster admiration by visitors and pride in community members, highly conspicuous disrepair can’t help but engender negative and counterproductive reactions,” the letter read in part.
Winterbottom said he has no particular personal history with the theater, but is nonetheless disappointed to see a unique and historic building gradually collapse before his eyes.
While state lawmakers share Winterbottom’s concerns, many are dubious about what actions are even possible.
The Naalehu Theater is owned by the 300 Corporation, an Oahu division of the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation, a nonprofit that owns several properties in Hawaii.
Because the property is privately owned, very little can be done to compel the owners to maintain their building, said state Rep. Richard Creagan, D-South Kona, portions of North Kona and Ka‘u.
“Lacking any will from the owners, it’s hard to do anything at all,” Creagan lamented.
Creagan said he attempted to reach out to the Weinberg Foundation and the 300 Corporation the last time the issue was brought to his attention, more than two years ago, but to no avail. Neither the foundation nor corporation would return his calls, Creagan said.
Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-Kailua-Kona, circulated an amended version of Winterbottom’s letter among lawmakers before sending it to the Weinberg Foundation. The letter, signed by eight Hawaii Island senators and representatives, requests the Weinberg Foundation to work with the community to address the issue.
“As one of the few cultural and historic landmarks commemorating the sugar industry, we believe it is worth preserving,” the letter read. “The theater fosters appreciation by visitors, is a source of pride among community members, and is eligible to be listed as a historic place.”
The Weinberg Foundation did not return a message left at their Hawaii office.
“We’ve had no cooperation or information from the 300 Corporation,” said Hawaii County Councilwoman Maile David. “I think everybody else who’s tried has had the same experience.”
David said she shares Winterbottom’s frustrations with the foundation, but noted with resignation that, without being able to open communications with the owners, one of the most logical ways to save the building is impossible.
The theater might have had a chance at preservation more than a decade ago, when it was found eligible for inclusion on the Hawaii Register of Historic Places. But Alvin Awaya, president of the 300 Corporation, objected to listing the property on the registry in 2005.
“What it would take to get it onto the register is that the owner would have to buy into it,” David said. Sites on the register are eligible for tax incentives derived from money spent preserving them.
A year later, the organization leasing the theater, unable to afford to maintain the deteriorating building — apparently unaided in this regard by the property owners — left the property, which has sat abandoned ever since.
Now, Creagan said, the State Historic Preservation Division has determined that the building is too dilapidated to include on the registry at all.
“It’s unfortunate for the community,” Creagan said. “There’s so few historically significant buildings down there.”
In addition to the growing hole in the theater’s roof and its worn siding, the structure is termite-infested, its interiors heavily vandalized and is frequently a shelter for users of illicit drugs, Creagan said.
Such dangers might, in fact, be the only way to save the theater. If the building were to be declared a public safety hazard, Creagan said, the property owners might be obligated to provide necessary repairs.
“That may be the approach,” Creagan said. “It is right next to the post office, there’s parking lots right there. Part of the roof could collapse.”
Of course, Creagan noted, when faced with such a situation, the owners might simply choose to bulldoze the theater. However, much of the theater is lined with asbestos, which would require extensive — and expensive — demolition methods to avoid releasing the carcinogenic substance into the surrounding air.
Beyond the cost of demolishing the building, Creagan said the theater should be an attractive property for any owner, located as it is in the center of Naalehu.
Now, however, Winterbottom said the building is just a saddening eyesore.
“I think it makes everybody depressed,” Winterbottom said. “I think everyone’s resigned to its fate after so many failures.”
In any case, Winterbottom said, a decision should be made quickly.
“Without a new roof, it won’t last long,” Winterbottom said.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.