What is it?
The Nā‘ālehu theater was built after World War I by the Hutchinson Sugar Co. to provide entertainment for the residents of the town. In 1979, the theater was purchased by the 300 Corp., an affiliate of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, which is one of the largest landowners in the state. After 300 Corp. acquired the theater, it was leased out and, over the next two decades, has housed several different operations, including a nonprofit radio station and a plantation movie theater museum.
What threatens it?
Over the years, the theater’s maintenance has been lax. In May 2006, rain damaged the weakened roof and flooded the building, ruining furnishings and equipment. Afterward, the foundation declined to renew the lease, and the building has been empty and falling further into disrepair ever since.
What can be done?
Marge Elwell, the president of Nā‘ālehu Main Street (NMS) applied for a lease from the foundation in January, but has not received a response. “We’re still trying to work out a plan for a five-year lease in which we won’t pay anything while we’re rebuilding the theater,” she says, “and, after three years, we would lease to buy the theater.”
HONOLULU’s calls to the Weinberg Foundation were not returned. The theater needs extensive repairs, which are outlined in a building-inspection report prepared by Taylor Built Construction, a local company. Among the findings: The theater requires a new roof and ceiling, new gutters, foundation repairs and possible plumbing and electrical upgrades. It will take about three years and approximately $150,000 to complete the necessary repairs. About 30 people have volunteered to help with the renovations and Bob Taylor of Taylor Built has agreed to supervise volunteers free of charge.
NMS still needs to raise the necessary renovation funds, and hopes to do so via “grassroots efforts and sweat equity,” as well as grants, which NMS hopes will become easier to secure once it joins the National Main Street Network, a national group of coordinating programs that help cities, towns and villages revitalize their downtown and neighborhood business districts. Additionally, Elwell submitted paperwork two years ago to have the theater identified as a National Historic Landmark, but has not received a response. She’s currently working to create a scenic byway through Ka‘ū, which she hopes will draw attention to the theater’s plight.