Senior Kristina Padrigo, 17, and her classmates participate in the ceremonial groundbreaking outside of Ka’u High and Pahala Elementary School during the Ka’u District Gym and Shelter Groundbreaking Wednesday morning. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)
An artist rendering of the new Ka’u gym and shelter is on display outside of Ka‘u High and Pahala Elementary School during a groundbreaking Wednesday. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)
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 from the state Legislature to the County Council and 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 and House and the County Council.
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 5 acres of county land adjoining the school. In the spring of 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 go anywhere that year, or in 2006 or 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 said back then.
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.
As Herkes told Stephens Media 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 Beck, the principal, fought back 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, whom he called 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,” he said. “We went so far, so very, very far; 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 inbetween. 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 people, 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 Department of Parks and Recreation activities.
By comparison, the new Hilo High Gym, a 23,000-square-foot facility, will be built for $10 million.