Baltimore foundation wants to give away neglected Naalehu Theater — but accepting decaying gift not that easy

  • The Naalehu Theater, though abandoned, is a landmark in the small rural town of Naalehu. (Photo courtesy / Glen Winterbottom)
  • A hole in the roof is visible in the Naalehu Theater. (Photo courtesy / Glen Winterbottom)
  • The Naalehu Theater sits abandoned, as it has for more than a decade. Photo taken on Jan. 3, 2016. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald, file)

BALTIMORE — Rising above the two-lane Mamalahoa Highway on the Big Island, the red-and-yellow, Art Deco edifice of the Naalehu Theater is wrapped in orange safety fencing, its weathered paint peeling and missing pieces of its sea turtle-emblazoned roof.

The Hutchinson Sugar Plantation Co. built the 94-year-old theater in Naalehu, the southernmost village in the United States, to entertain — and help retain — its diverse population of workers. But the theater is abandoned now. The 1996 closing of Hutchison Sugar’s successor ended sugar production on the island, near its still active volcanoes.

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Today, fewer than 900 people call Naalehu home, but that hasn’t stopped some of them from urging the theater’s owner and lawmakers to act to save and restore the neglected 500-seat showhouse and highlight it and the sugar industry’s place in Hawaiian history. But the efforts have foundered, facing resistance from the owner, a subsidiary of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, a Baltimore-based philanthropy ranked among the top 50 U.S. charitable organizations with about $2.8 billion in assets.

Established by Harry Weinberg, a shrewd businessman who accumulated a vast real estate empire stretching from Baltimore to Hawaii before his death in 1990, the foundation counts among its missions the support of poor, rural communities throughout Hawaii.

“Who wants to threaten that piggy bank?” said Naalehu resident Glen Winterbottom of county and state lawmakers, who he believes haven’t done enough to challenge the foundation’s neglect of the theater. “It’s a depressed area. We don’t have any other old plantation memorials that have survived.”

But the tide may be turning for the theater. The Weinberg Foundation is now in the process of gifting the theater to the county, which it hopes to complete by the end of 2019, said Craig Demchak, its director of marketing and communications.

“It was clear to the Weinberg Foundation that the community would benefit from and prefer to have ownership of — and therefore control over — Naalehu Theater and its future,” Demchak said in an email. “The Foundation is eager to execute the necessary documents with the County to complete this transaction … [and] is pleased to resolve this real estate matter in a manner that wholly benefits the local community and puts the community in control of the building.”

But it’s not clear when or if the transfer will go through.

GIFT WORTH ACCEPTING?

The foundation’s Hawaiian footprint began after Weinberg traveled to the state in the 1950s and recognized its potential for tourism, according to his obituary published in The Baltimore Sun. He purchased properties throughout the islands and, later, transit companies.

According to the obituary, Weinberg was criticized as a callous landlord who neglected his properties in Baltimore and elsewhere. He shocked those critical of him when, toward the end of his 90 years, he announced he would bequeath most of his fortune, roughly $900 million, to his foundation’s charitable trust.

Weinberg’s organization purchased the theater in 1979, according to a Honolulu Magazine article on the state’s most endangered historic sites. It leased the building to various groups over the years, a practice that ended around 2006 after rain overwhelmed the weakened roof and flooded the building, the article states.

Since then, the theater’s condition has worsened by the year.

While the foundation now seems willing to give it up, it’s not clear Hawaii County wants it.

The building’s future remains “in question,” said Diane Ley, director of the county’s department of research and development. Renovating a building that size would prove costly, potentially hazardous and time consuming, she said.

“I’m not familiar with why the foundation bought it and let it go. It may have just fallen off their radar,” Ley said. “It’s a very small community with limited resources, and that creates a challenge as well.”

Ley said she she’s not sure what purpose the building would serve in today’s Naalehu but hopes the county can engage with the community to determine what might benefit the area most.

“People are generally not building theaters these days, people watch Netflix. And again, it’s a very small community,” she said. “To put together a theater of that size is probably not feasible.”

The building is valued for tax purposes at $177,800, online property records show. The owner is listed still as 300 Corp., a Weinberg Foundation subsidiary, that also is listed as owning a shopping center and a warehouse on the island of Hawaii.

WAITING WHILE IN DISREPAIR

To Winterbottom, the foundation’s gifting of the theater is too little, too late. He said many people in the “don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it” town struggle to make ends meet, and thus can’t offer much help in a potential grassroots fundraising or rebuilding initiative.

“[The foundation] has all this money to give away … but this has been so difficult,” Winterbottom said. “It’s bizarre. Maybe it’s just out here in the country that they’re so ruthless.”

Demchak said the foundation’s record speaks for itself.

“The Foundation is … dedicated to meeting the unique needs of rural communities in Hawaii and throughout the United States, and has designated ‘rural’ areas as priority communities for the Foundation’s grantmaking,” he said in another email.

Despite the foundation’s good intentions, Ley said the county “can’t just automatically accept things,” as a gift of this nature would need to go through administrative as well as legislative review.

“At this time, no action has been taken,” she said, noting that given the county’s other priorities — volcano eruptions and hurricanes among them — this process likely would not conclude by year’s end.

Demchak said the foundation has not received feedback from the county indicating any changes to the proposed timeframe.

Efforts to address the theater’s condition and its management date to at least 2005, when the theater was considered for inclusion on the Hawaii Register of Historic Places, according to a 2018 resolution sponsored by members of the Hawaii state legislature calling for the county to seize it by eminent domain to preserve its legacy. But the then-president of 300 Corp., Alvin Awaya, declined to have it listed, according to the resolution.

Inclusion of a property on the register makes it eligible for county property tax benefits and grant funding, according to the State Historic Preservation’s website.

Since 2010, the Historic Hawaii Foundation, a state nonprofit that works with communities to address preservation issues, has listed the theater as “endangered” on its website, writing that “due to its decline, the State Historic Preservation Division has determined it is now too damaged for the registry.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

And about three years ago, state Rep. Richard Creagan, a Democrat who sponsored the 2018 resolution, reached out to the Weinberg Foundation and 300 Corp. regarding the theater’s status, but did not receive an answer, according to a March 2018 article by the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

Calls to Creagan’s office were not returned.

The mayor’s office and members of the Hawaii House of Representatives sent letters to the foundation in March 2018. The mayor’s office asked for information about the foundation’s plans for the theater and other property in Naalehu “relative to the Foundation’s mission to assist low-income and vulnerable families,” while the representatives urged the organization to work with the community to resolve the theater’s maintenance problems.

The Weinberg Foundation’s Demchak said discussions with Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim about the theater began in 2018. Kim did not respond to requests for comment.

“The Theater represents a place in time — a vibrant center of a former plantation town — that has the potential to reinvigorate the town today,” Demchak said in an email.

Over the past 30 years, the Weinberg Foundation has provided approximately $350 million to nonprofits in Hawaii and increased its grantmaking in Hawaii to $12 million per year, according to a fact sheet provided to The Baltimore Sun by the organization.

The foundation “regularly reexamines and and realigns its investment portfolio, including real estate holdings (located primarily in Hawaii and to a lesser extent in the Baltimore region) and is proud of its long history in Hawaii and is deeply committed to serving the community with warmest aloha for many years to come.”

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But, to Winterbottom, Weinberg’s reputation as a negligent landlord serves as an apt parallel of the foundation’s treatment of the theater today. How, he said, can the organization continue to advertise its charitable giving to poor communities after allowing his hometown to crumble?

It’s a contradiction, he said, that lingers over Naalehu — like the shadow of Mauna Loa.

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