County considering Naalehu Theater gift

  • Naalehu Theater on March 18, 2018. (Photo by Glen Winterbottom/courtesy to West Hawaii Today)

  • Naalehu Theater in better days. (Cinematreasures.org/ Undated courtesy photo)

HILO — It’s a gift Hawaii County isn’t sure quite what to do with.

The Naalehu Theater, a colorful Art Deco landmark built in 1940 along Mamalahoa Highway in Naalehu, needs a lot of TLC. Constructed by the Hutchinson Sugar Plantation, it was the go-to theater for some 8,000 residents and 10,000 troops stationed at South Point, according to cinematreasures.org.

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Years of neglect have faded the bright yellow and red stripes on the facade and the massive honu that adorns the roof. There’s a 5-foot-by-5-foot hole in the roof now, where water pours in when it rains. Bright orange netting blocks the entrances.

County officials have been meeting to decide what to do about an offer from the Baltimore, Maryland-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation to turn over the property to the county.

“It’s going to be a costly liability,” Managing Director Roy Takemoto said Tuesday.

On the plus side, the building sits on a quarter-acre prime commercial lot right next to the Post Office.

Department of Research and Development director Diane Ley called the Weinberg Foundation on Dec. 20 and asked them to secure the building because of safety concerns.

“There was just general safety concerns about the condition of the building. We asked the owners to make sure it was closed to the public,” Ley said. “We don’t want people wandering in to take a look or there might be homeless people living there.”

The mayor’s office has pulled officials from R&D and the Department of Public Works together to see what to do next.

“We’re doing the general due diligence we would do with any gift to the county, in particular a building,” Ley said.

Ley said the building was identified in the Naalehu CDP as an important asset. The county has not yet gone out and inspected the property, she said.

“We know if the county were to accept it we’re going to need resources,” Ley said. “How would you fund everything from restoring the building to renovating it to tearing it down.”

The Planning Department is being added to the mix in a meeting next month to see how the property could fit into its Community Redevelopment Plan, Takemoto said.

“We want to meet with the community to see if they have ideas,” Takemoto said. “We don’t want to just say no.”

Naalehu resident Glen Winterbottom, who several years ago launched a save-the-theater crusade, said Thursday county administrators haven’t contacted him about the prospects for the property. But he wants to see the theater, if not saved, then at least reconstructed.

“I would be happy as long the outside stayed the same because it’s such an icon, such a landmark,” Winterbottom said. “No. 1, patch the roof or replace the whole thing while it’s being argued.”

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Winterbottom said the building, if it’s been neglected so long it’s beyond repair, could be rebuilt if the county was to take measured drawings. While a theater may no longer be practical, the building would make a good museum, small retail shops or offices, he said.

“It’s not hard to do,” he said. “It’s a simple building with simple materials.”

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