My Turn: Time to plan Naalehu Theater’s next 100 years

Many thanks for your publication’s coverage of recent developments in the strange and long-running Naalehu Theater saga. In the absence of such insightful reporting, including the well-illustrated front-page story appearing in the legendary Baltimore Sun newspaper in the long-time theater owner’s Maryland backyard, Hawaii County administrators would almost certainly have slunk away in the dark of night and quietly abandoned the purposely neglected landmark to an eventual inevitable demise.

Since I’ve been waiting fruitlessly for over 15 months to obtain a requested meeting with Mayor Harry Kim to discuss the predicament, I also appreciate this opportunity to expand briefly on my published comments concerning possible options for the theater going forward, now that it’s belatedly become public knowledge that the Weinberg Foundation has been offering to donate the building and land it sits on to the county for over a year now.

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In the event that the fabulously wealthy (but bizarrely Scrooge-like in this region) Weinberg organization or an unrelated philanthropic entity doesn’t offer to help renovate the theater for some beneficial public purpose like a senior citizen center, I’d suggest that a very logical alternative would be for either the foundation itself or the county to offer to lease the clearly unwanted property to a private preservation-oriented developer for perhaps 50 to 100 years for “$1 and love” per annum.

Of course, in exchange for such a rare if not unprecedented “freebie in Paradise,” a qualified lessee would have to commit to faithfully restore or if necessary reconstruct the theater’s exterior, and subsequently maintain it in exemplary condition for the life of the agreement. The hopefully well-vetted recipient could then use their expertise and past experience to modify the building’s spacious interior for whatever commercial purpose they believe would be most feasible and profitable over the long term.

I’m most definitely not talking about a superficial “old-timey-look” approach, but rather a professional museum-quality exterior restoration or reconstruction in accordance with accepted historic preservation standards that would do justice to the theater’s history and significance during the long reign of “King Sugar” in the Ka‘u District.

Although in such a scenario the structure would need to continue looking from the outside like it maintained a traditionally sloped theater floor, the actual ground floor within could certainly be leveled for additional space and practicality for other uses.

Additionally, the building could probably accommodate a second floor or mezzanine if so desired, and there might conceivably even be room on the currently empty portion of the property for an additional complementary structure of some kind. These kinds of important considerations and tradeoffs are why historic preservation architects and consultants offer their services.

No doubt there would be some complications to deal with, such as projection room asbestos remediation, modern setback requirements and ADA compliance among others, but experienced professionals in the historic building field are well-versed with such common wrinkles. And while the structure’s galvanized v-rib sheet metal siding is probably no longer replaceable “off the shelf,” there’s likely no shortage of fabricators on the mainland who could easily replicate that specific pattern on a custom basis. This is a very simple building made out of simple materials, and it most assuredly wouldn’t require any “rocket science” to successfully and profitably rehabilitate!

After a near-death experience maybe a decade ago, the large and attractive shower tree fronting the Naalehu Ace Hardware store (formerly the Hutchinson Sugar Plantation Company’s main office) succumbed for good this year, but that unfortunate event definitely doesn’t have to be a metaphor for Naalehu’s future.

On the contrary, the small shopping center adjacent to the theater was recently purchased from the Weinberg Foundation by a father and son team of philanthropic-leaning local developers who were quoted in this paper as desiring to see that similarly neglected complex become “a center for the community to congregate to build a better Naalehu.”

They’ve long owned and operated the apparently very successful Punaluu Bake Shop and cookie factory just across the highway from their latest acquisition, so there’s no reason to doubt the seriousness of their intentions. There are also new agricultural operations visibly underway in the long-fallow fields above town, with some related visitor facilities and a senior housing project reportedly planned here as well.

Against this backdrop of mostly positive developments, the badly maltreated Naalehu Theater continues against all odds to loom over and anchor this town’s minuscule civic and business center after close to a century now. The many benefits for all concerned of revitalizing the community’s sole surviving highly visible testament to 150 years of blood, sweat and toil in the service of the once-pivotal sugar industry should be glaringly obvious to all the relevant power brokers — if only they would take off their blinders and belatedly provide some effective leadership in this situation.

None other than a spokesman for the Weinberg Foundation has stated (albeit rather hypocritically) that: “The Theater represents a place in time — a vibrant center of a former plantation town — that has the potential to reinvigorate the town today.”

And as reported in a similar vein just a few days ago, the historic property developer of the venerable Wo Fat Chop Suey Restaurant building located in Honolulu’s Chinatown has promised that, “We’re going to give it energy, we’re going to give it a new heartbeat and we’re going to ride this baby for another 100 years.”

Nothing but enhanced optimism and community pride could possibly result from such enlightened sentiments coupled with concrete action being directed toward the Southernmost Town In The U.S.A.’s own humble historic landmark memorializing its hardy sons and daughters who long worked the former fields of waving cane.

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But the first order of business towards achieving that goal must involve someone patching the gaping 5-foot-square hole in the theater’s roof while it’s future is being debated! Another vital preliminary task would include having professionally measured drawings made of the structure as it presently exists, to inform and guide subsequent actions.

Glen Winterbottom is a 40-year resident of Naalehu and past Naalehu Dairy cowboy.