By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
PAHALA — Seven years ago, Sharon Beck, the principal of Ka‘u High and Pahala Elementary, had a dream of a new gymnasium for this tight-knit rural community.
On Wednesday, after a campaign that rolled through the state and county bureaucracies, from the Legislature to the County Council, from the Department of Education to the mayor’s desk, Beck dug her gilded shovel into a pile of gravel and turned it over.
The long-awaited groundbreaking for a $18.1 million gym and community shelter was attended by about 200 people, including Ka‘u High students, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Mayor Billy Kenoi, and Ka‘u’s representatives in the state Senate, state House and the County Council. All of them were instrumental in getting the gym off the ground.
Construction on the 37,827-square-foot gym and a 4,354-square-foot multipurpose facility could get under way in a month or so on a 5-acre footprint of county land adjoining the school. Within 18 months, or spring 2014, Ka‘u will have a modern, hurricane-proof facility, and with an $18.1 million price tag it’s being called the biggest expenditure in the history of the district.
Reminders of the need for a shelter were easy to spot, from the light veil of vog that hung over Ka‘u like a blanket to the charred trees across the street from Ka‘u Hospital. Pahala has been subject to brush fires, earthquakes, volcanic gases and the occasional passing hurricane, but there wasn’t any Federal Emergency Management Agency-approved shelter to hold displaced residents.
State Rep. Bob Herkes said he put in a $10.9 million capital improvement request for the gym in 2005, but it didn’t got anywhere that year, or in 2006, or in 2007.
In 2008, Herkes went back to the drawing board, and the state revised the initial concept of a gym to a $18.1 million community shelter. The money made it into the state budget in 2009, but he couldn’t get the state Department of Education interested in it.
That meant the facility’s design phase was ranked No. 60 out of 64 DOE-prioritized projects.
“If the DOE was looking around to spend $18 million, we would spend it in other places,” an assistant superintendent once said.
Herkes, then-Councilman Guy Enriques and others met with Board of Education member Herbert Watanabe to talk about the gym and walked away empty-handed. “Oh no, we’re not going to spend the money. We need classrooms. We don’t need that kind of stuff,” is how Herkes recalled the meeting.
Or as he told the Tribune-Herald in January 2010:
“Watanabe said the DOE would never spend the money because it’s a low priority and not for classrooms. So, I suppose the health and safety of the community doesn’t mean a damn. So, the hell with it. We’re just going to transfer the money to the county.”
The Legislature approved the money, Abercrombie released it last October, and the Kenoi administration and the County Council jumped at it. The environmental assessment was completed, Mitsunaga & Associates designed it, Summit Construction won the bid, and Sharon Beck, the principal, fought back her tears as she delivered her opening remarks at Wednesday’s dedication.
“It’s a good day,” Herkes said. “It’s one of the biggest facilities in Ka‘u, and I’m glad you’re all here today to see the construction start.”
Kenoi, in his remarks, addressed the students, the “future leaders” of the community.
“All you guys have to dream. Dream big, work hard and never give up, and all your dreams will come true,” he said.
In his first visit to Ka‘u since a post-inauguration tour of the islands, Abercrombie praised the community as “one big family” and said that the Big Island is “not just Hilo and Kona.” He asked Beck to invite him back at the grand opening.
Bob Gomes, who gave remarks on behalf of the community, was bursting with pride.
“Look what we accomplished. We went so far, so very, very far,” Gomes said. “When we all get together and we pull together, as small as we are, we know we can.”
When complete, the gym will have three NCAA-regulation basketball/volleyball courts with retractable curtains between each court. There will be 1,012 retractable bleacher seats, a certified kitchen, concession counters, ticket windows, a meeting room, public restrooms, locker/shower rooms and other facilities.
Both the gym and the multipurpose facility are designed to survive a Category 3 hurricane with peak gusts of 155 mph. They are designed to shelter 1,928 individuals, but more could be accommodated if necessary.
The gym will be a hybrid state-county facility, open to Ka‘u High and Pahala Elementary students for games, physical education classes and school assemblies. It will be open to the community through the Department of Parks and Recreation activities.
By comparison, the new Hilo High Gym will be built in a 23,000-square-foot facility for $10 million.
Email Peter Sur at email@example.com.