Emotions ran high during an evening emergency community meeting Nov. 10 outside the Papa‘aloa Gym.
Hawaii County Parks and Recreation officials and County Councilwoman Heather Kimball held the meeting to announce the inevitable demolition of the decades-old, plantation-style gym.
“We are very unhappy about this. This is one of our recreational facilities, and we are not happy to see it go,” said Parks and Recreation Director Maurice Messina. “We asked for the meeting so that people were not surprised by what’s going on, and we expected the response.”
The gym has been closed indefinitely since the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020. It was closed intermittently for repairs before that, according to Messina.
Improvements are planned for the tennis courts, the annex and baseball field at Papa‘aloa Park to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The county intended to renovate the gym while those improvements were being made, but it was deemed unsalvageable after extensive termite damage was found throughout the building, according to Parks and Recreation planner James Komata.
According to Parks and Recreation officials, in October they found out they could not save the gym.
Members of the public who attended the meeting objected to that announcement, and said there have been issues with the gym that have gone unaddressed for years.
“In 10 years, something’s changed. The maintenance stopped,” said community member Lisa Barton. “I was at every single meeting asking and waiting for someone to maintain the building. All my kids grew up here. We did so much good. We want to see something saved.”
In a separate interview with the Tribune-Herald after the meeting, Barton said the gym has been neglected by the county for years.
“Windows began breaking about 10 years ago, and shortly after, tape went up around the gym because of exposed lead paint,” Barton said. “That tape was up for five or so years. The windows are still broken.”
Throughout that time, Barton said no county workers came to repaint the gym to seal the lead paint.
“This is what we’ve had to do. Other communities do not have to fight to keep their school, pool or police office open,” Barton said during the interview. “We have had to fight for everything because we are the district with the least amount of people.”
After helping to restore several buildings in Hamakua, Barton believes that the gym is salvageable and is disappointed that it will be demolished.
“There has been no maintenance done in over 10 years, and you expect it to stay the same. They want to tear it down, because they didn’t maintain it,” Barton told the Tribune-Herald. “Even at an emergency meeting at 5 p.m. there was a ton of people there, because we care about this place and don’t want to see it go.”
Some community members at the meeting accepted news of the demolition, but were disappointed that there is not a plan to replace the recreational facility.
“It would probably make people feel better if there is some reassurance that there would be something to take the gym’s place,” said Amber Wilson during the meeting. “Because I think what people are hearing is that you’re tearing this down, but have indefinite plans to put something in its place.”
Kimball responded by saying she did not want to make promises that she can’t keep.
“The biggest question mark is what the site will look like after demolition and shoring up the slope,” Kimball said. “There will probably be contamination in the ground, as well, but at least we know what footprint we will have to play with to potentially build something.”
While many asked why park funds could not be allotted to building a new gym, Messina said that the last gym that was built on the island in Ka‘u cost the county $17 million.
“This community, Hamakua in general, has had decades of neglect. Whether you are talking about gyms, bridges, wastewater, endless stuff keeps me up at night,” Kimball said during the meeting. “There are a lot of things to balance and a lot of money involved. It’s not as simple as reallocating money from here to there.
“At least with it gone, we have to opportunity to possibly build something else,” Kimball continued.
Recreation administrator Mason Souza spoke at the meeting to address the immediate need for recreation facilities for keiki.
“I’m very disappointed it came to this place. I grew up in this plantation community, and I remember when they fixed the gym in 1974,” Souza said. “Going forward, my staff and I will work hard to get things together and find facilities for our kids to play basketball, volleyball, or anything.”
Souza plans to work with gym coaches and area schools to find a way to provide recreational activities for kids losing their gym.
When the meeting opened up to community questions, Dave Molenaar stood up and suggested a group get together to imagine what the park could potentially look like.
“We need to build something that fits the needs of all of us,” Molenaar said. “We need a playground for kids, more parking, maybe we can turn the baseball field into a space for a gym. What we need is to put a group together to dream about what everyone wants.”
In a follow-up interview with the Tribune-Herald, Kimball said that she sees something like that happening in the future and hopes that she can work with a group improve the park.
“After demolishing the gym, we will have a good idea about what we can do with the space,” Kimball said. “I’m working with parks and recreation and hoping we can get a planning group together for a vision on what they want the park to look like in the future.”
Kimball explained during the meeting that a new facility would not be built without help from the community. When it’s time to put projects on the Capitol Improvement Project budget list, Kimball wants the community to give their testimony about why they need a gym.
“When we get to a point for allocation of funds, that will also be the time to show up to council meetings or write letters,” Kimball said. “I was so excited to see so many people at the meeting so concerned about recreation for our kids, adults and kupuna.”
At the meeting, Kimball passed around a sign-up list for her weekly email newsletters and said she planned to keep the community updated as things progress.
“We are thankful for people coming out and taking the time to understand what the process is to get this done,” Messina said. “The mayor understands what it means to lose a facility, and we ask the community to help us make our way and make it a priority.”
Work on the ADA accessibility project at Papa‘aloa Park will began last week and will end by June, according to Parks and Recreation. The baseball field will remain open throughout construction.
Consultants will need to look at the extent of hazardous materials in the gym and soil before negotiating a price and beginning demolition.
Before the gym is officially demolished, Kimball wants to host a formal event for the community.
“I think having a formal event where we can get everybody together again, they can bring photos and share memories about the gym,” Kimball. “We know it’s more than just losing a public space, the gym is an important part of the community history.”
Email Kelsey Walling at firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald
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