“We are not happy to see him disappear”: impending demolition of Papa’aloa Gym sparks anger

Emotions ran high at an emergency community meeting in the evening on November 10 outside the Papa’aloa Gymnasium.

Hawaii County Parks and Recreation officials and County Councilor Heather Kimball held the meeting to announce the inevitable demolition of the decades-old plantation-style gym.

“We are very unhappy with this. It is one of our recreational facilities and we are not happy to see it disappear ”, declared the director of parks and recreation, Maurice Messina. “We requested the meeting so that people weren’t surprised by what was going on, and we were waiting for the response.”

The gymnasium has been closed indefinitely since the start of COVID-19 in March 2020. It was intermittently closed for repairs before that, according to Messina.

Improvements are planned for the tennis courts, 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 gymnasium while these upgrades were being made, but it was deemed unrecoverable 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 they couldn’t save the gymnasium.

Members of the public who attended the meeting objected to the announcement and said there were issues with the gym that had not been resolved in years.

“In 10 years, something has changed. The maintenance has stopped, ”said community member Lisa Barton. “I was at every meeting to ask and wait for someone to maintain the building. All of my children grew up here. We have done so much good. We want to see something saved.

In a separate interview with the Tribune-Herald after the meeting, Barton said the gymnasium has been neglected by the county for years.

“The windows started shattering about 10 years ago, and soon after, duct tape spilled around the gym from the lead paint exposed,” Barton said. “This tape had been online for about five years. The windows are still broken.

During that time, Barton said no county employees came to repaint the gymnasium to seal the lead paint.

“This is what we had to do. Other communities don’t have to fight to keep their school, their swimming pool or their police station open, ”Barton said in the interview. “We had to fight for everything because we are the least populated area. “

After helping restore several buildings in Hamakua, Barton believes the gymnasium is salvageable and is disappointed that it is demolished.

“There has been no maintenance done for over 10 years, and you expect it to stay the same. They want to tear it down because they haven’t maintained it, ”Barton told the Tribune-Herald. “Even in an emergency meeting at 5pm, there were a ton of people there because we care about this place and we don’t want to see it go away.”

Some community members present at the meeting accepted the news of the demolition, but were disappointed that there was no plan to replace the recreation facility.

“People would probably feel better if they were reassured that there would be something to replace the gym,” Amber Wilson said at the meeting. “Because I think what people are hearing is that you are tearing this down, but you have undefined plans to put something in its place.”

Kimball responded by saying she didn’t want to make any promises she couldn’t keep.

“The biggest question mark is what the site will look like after demolition and reinforcement of the slope,” Kimball said. “There will probably be contamination in the ground as well, but at least we know what footprint we’ll have to play with to potentially build something. “

While many questioned why park funds could not be allocated to build a new gymnasium, Messina said the last gymnasium built on Ka’u Island cost the county $ 17 million.

“This community, Hamakua in general, has experienced decades of neglect. Whether you’re talking about gyms, bridges, sewage, endless stuff keeps me awake at night, ”Kimball said at the meeting. “There’s a lot to balance and a lot of money at stake. It’s not as easy as reallocating money from here to there.

“At least once it’s gone, we have an opportunity to build something else,” Kimball continued.

Recreation administrator Mason Souza spoke at the meeting to address the immediate need for recreation facilities for the keiki.

“I am very disappointed that he came to this place. I grew up in this plantation community and remember when they fixed the gymnasium in 1974, ”Souza said. “In the future, my staff and I will work hard to put things together and find facilities for our children to play basketball, volleyball or whatever.”

Souza plans to work with local gym trainers and schools to find a way to provide recreational activities for kids who lose their gym.

When the meeting opened up to questions from the community, Dave Molenaar stood up and suggested that a group get together to imagine what the park might look like.

“We have to build something that meets the needs of each of us,” Molenaar said. “We need a playground for the kids, more parking, maybe we can turn the baseball field into a space for a gymnasium. What we need is to form a group to dream of what everyone wants.

In a follow-up interview with the Tribune-Herald, Kimball said she plans something like this to happen in the future and hopes she can work with a group to improve the park.

“After we demolish the gymnasium, we’ll have a good idea of ​​what we can do with the space,” Kimball said. “I’m working with parks and recreation and hopefully we can get a planning group together for a vision of 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 the help of the community. When it’s time to put projects on the Capitol Improvement Project budget list, Kimball wants the community to give their testimony on why they need a gymnasium.

“When we get to a point for allocating funds, this will also be a time to show up for board meetings or write letters,” Kimball said. “I was so excited to see so many people at the reunion so concerned with the hobbies of our children, adults and kupuna.”

At the meeting, Kimball circulated a signup list for her weekly email newsletters and said she plans to keep the community up to date with developments.

“We are grateful to people who come forward and take the time to understand what the process is to get there,” Messina said. “The mayor understands what it means to lose a facility, and we are asking the community to help us navigate our way and make it a priority. “

Work on the ADA accessibility project at Papa’aloa Park will begin last week and end in June, according to Parks and Recreation. The baseball field will remain open for the duration of the work.

Consultants will need to examine the extent of hazardous materials in the gymnasium and floor before negotiating a price and starting the demolition.

Before the gymnasium is officially demolished, Kimball wants to organize a formal event for the community.

“I think having a formal event where we can get everyone together again, they can bring photos and share memories on the gym,” Kimball. “We know it’s more than losing public space, the gymnasium is an important part of the history of the community. “

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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