Community steps up for Merrie Monarch

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The Merrie Monarch Festival is close to finding solutions for housing hula halau displaced after Mayor Harry Kim informed the festival the troupes would no longer be allowed to sleep in county gyms.

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The Merrie Monarch Festival is close to finding solutions for housing hula halau displaced after Mayor Harry Kim informed the festival the troupes would no longer be allowed to sleep in county gyms.

An Aug. 9 letter from Kim to Merrie Monarch President Luana Kawelu said the longstanding practice would be discontinued because the overnight stays violated fire and building codes.

Kawelu said Friday the festival found alternative housing, all from private sources, for all but one of the displaced halau. She said there’s also potential alternative accommodations in the works for Kawai‘ulaokala, the halau from Honolulu’s St. Louis School under the direction of kumu hula Keli‘iho‘omalu Puchalski.

“I have a possible place and the halau sent somebody to look at it. So I’m just waiting to see if it’s suitable to hold the amount of dancers that they have,” Kawelu said. “I’m going to wait for Puchalski to contact them to let them know if it is suitable and then I’m going to meet with them to make sure everything is in place.”

Kawelu said the place being considered is in Keaukaha. In addition, alternative housing in Keaukaha was found for Hi‘iakainamakalehua, this year’s runner-up for the overall and wahine overall titles, which was staying at Kawananakoa Gym in Keaukaha. Robert Ke‘ano Ka‘upu IV, a Keaukaha native and co-kumu hula of the halau, said on Facebook when the mayor’s decision was made public that his halau stayed the past three Merrie Monarchs at Kawananakoa “because it is where I come from and where me and my halau belong!”

Kawelu said she spoke with Ka‘upu and “he’s happy with his accommodations.”

The mayor’s letter offered the halau the use of the cabins and bunkhouse at Mauna Kea Recreation Area, a state facility administered by the county, but Kawelu looked elsewhere because of the roughly hour-long drive from the park, which is situated on Saddle Road, to Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium, where the festival’s three-night hula competition is hosted.

“What they did up there is beautiful but it’s too inconvenient for the halau. But at least (Kim) gave us a suggestion,” Kawelu said.

The gym sleepovers for halau previously were allowed, including during Kim’s previous administration between 2001 and 2008. The mayor said in August he was unaware of the code violations at that time. The halau were allowed to use the gyms during this year’s festival with the provision of a 24-hour fire watch, provided by the halau.

Kim’s letter said during the 2017 festival, Kawananakoa Gym in Keaukaha housed 24 people for one night and 25 for eight nights, Waiakea Recreation Center housed 25 people for one night, Waiakea Uka Gym housed 51 people for four nights and Papaikou Gym housed 35 people for four nights.

Kawelu said the halau using the Waiakea Recreation Center “wasn’t staying there. They were just using it as a dressing room. But they said they would allow us to use it as a dressing room again as long as (the halau doesn’t) stay there.” She added that while Ka‘upu’s halau won’t be allowed to sleep in Kawanakoa Gym, it will be able to use the facility for practice and showers.

News that halau wouldn’t be allowed to use the gyms for future Merrie Monarch festivals caused uproar in the hula community and beyond. Two County Council members, Sue Lee Loy and Aaron Chung, wrote letters to the editor to express their disappointment with the decision.

Chung said in a letter published Sept. 6, as far as he knew, the mayor didn’t consult the council first, saying it is “the body vested with the responsibility of making and changing laws. If there was a problem, the mayor should have alerted us so that we could work together in correcting the situation.”

In a letter published Sept. 2, Lee Loy said Kawelu learned about the letter on social media and Lee Loy found out 30 minutes before a meeting with Kawelu. She said Kawelu expressed her confidence that “Hilo will come through for the festival.”

“Since that time, an amazing network of community partners eagerly stepped up to offer assistance,” she wrote, adding that she and Chung “have kept in close contact with these community partners and the festival representatives to ensure we find a smart way forward.”

Kawelu said the community has “stepped up” to kokua the festival, and described the support as “awesome.”

“My concern was the halau would feel so hurt that Hilo was not supporting them,” she said. “They were just thrown for a loop when that ruling came down because (they used the gyms) for so many years and now, why all of a sudden? After we talked about it, they really want to come to Hilo. Because this is where Merrie Monarch was born. So they want to keep it here.”

Saying “safety is important,” Kawelu said she understands the mayor’s concerns.

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“I want safety as much as Harry does. I don’t want the halau staying in an unsafe place and if it’s the law, it’s the law. We just have to move on and do the best we can for the halau. That’s my priority, to take care of them first. As long as they’re taken care of, we’re fine,” she said.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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