Neglect in Naalehu


HILO — The historic Naalehu Theater in Pahala, owned by the Harriet and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, is being “demolished by neglect,” said the former manager of the 73-year-old theater.

“Papa Joe” Demoruelle, who managed the theater from 1980 to 2006, said the 300 Corporation, a profit-making arm of the foundation, declined to have the theater listed on state and federal historic registers and has failed to maintain the theater, which has stood vacant since 2006. Vandals have trashed the projectors, screen and seats and other fixtures inside the boarded-up historic building.

With more than $2 billion in assets, the Baltimore-based Weinberg Foundation’s “sole purpose is to assist low-income and vulnerable individuals and families through nonprofit grants to direct-service providers and programs,” and it ranks 33rd among the largest U.S. grant-making institutions.

Demolition by neglect describes “a situation in which a property owner intentionally allows a historic property to suffer severe deterioration, potentially beyond the point of repair,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization. “Property owners may use this kind of long-term neglect to circumvent historic preservation regulations.”

Demoruelle believes the neglect will be the ultimate demise of the theater.

The Honolulu-based 300 Corporation collects income from property it acquires and transfers all proceeds to the Weinberg Foundation. 300 Corporation had gross revenue of nearly $7 million in 2011, and net revenue of $3.15 million after expenses, according to public tax documents filed by the company. Attempts to reach officials at the 300 Corporation for comment were unsuccessful. A voicemail message left for Craig Demchak, listed as Director of Community Affairs for the Weinberg Foundation, also was not returned.

“Demolition by neglect” is illegal in some states and municipalities, but not in Hawaii.

Demoruelle said he and other volunteers submitted an application to the state for designation of the Naalehu Theater as a historic site in 2005.

The Hawaii Office of Historic Preservation was ready to assign historic status to the theater but the 300 Corporation declined, citing property rights issues, said Ross Stephenson, historian for the state Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. “We considered it,” he recalled, noting that the theater’s historic architecture, and status a one-time cultural focal point in the rural community, are reasons for preserving it.

“I’d hate to see this go the way of the other old theaters,” Demoruelle said. “Pahala, and others, they’re falling down.

“The Naalehu Theater has stood for 73 years and deserves better than this.”

As a building older than 50 years in Hawaii, any active demolition or modifications to it would be subject to review by the state Historic Preservation Division, but essentially, “(the owner) can do anything he wants,” Stephenson said.