Portuguese cultural center plans scaled back

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Marlene Hapai, president and executive director of the Hawaii Island Portuguese Cultural Center, is photographed in Hilo on Friday.

Nearly five years after fundraising for the effort began in earnest, plans for the Hawaii Island Portuguese Chamber of Commerce Cultural and Educational Center have gone back to the drawing board.

The size of the facility has been whittled down as projected costs have increased.


Early plans called for a 6,500-square-foot facility with a $4 million budget, President and Executive Director Marlene Hapai said.

When fundraising efforts began in 2016, the center had $7,900 in the bank. That year, though, it received a $1 million grant-in-aid from the state Legislature.

“So, when we got the first million, I thought, ‘Oh, that wasn’t hard,’ not realizing that maybe that’s almost all they planned to give,” Hapai said.

The nonprofit, however, recognized the difficulties of raising $4 million and in 2018 began a phased approach to the project.

The first phase, which would have included a 4,500-square-foot facility with a main hall, a Hall of Explorations, restrooms and storage, had a $2.2 million budget.

But bids for the scaled-back design came back significantly higher, between $4 million and $5 million, Hapai said.

“We’re like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’ … So we said, there’s no way we can raise this kind of money.”

Hapai told the Tribune-Herald in May 2019 that she anticipated construction to begin late that year or early 2020, with a projected completion date in September or October 2020.

Because the first two plans won’t work, Hapai said the center has to do what it can with what it has and is now on its third design.

The center paid $228,000 for the first two designs.

“But it wasn’t wasted because, what we found, we had a beautiful piece of property as far as view was concerned — perfect view of Hilo Bay, beautiful view — but we discovered through all of their geotechnical work and everything that the soil was very poor clay soil, and to the point where it would cost $1 million just to develop the site.”

The nonprofit is now considering a 3,500-square foot facility, which would include 2,000 square feet of indoor space and 1,500 square feet of veranda space outside, all covered.

The facility also will be moved uphill from the middle of the property to another part of the site that is less expensive to develop.

“So (it will be) a smaller facility, but we’ll still be able to do everything we planned in the first two,” Hapai said.

Plans also call for the new building to have a separate air-conditioned archive room.

According to Hapai, the Portugal Consul General has donated a 30-panel exhibit about Portuguese discoveries during the Age of Exploration.

The main hall still will feature exhibits about the journeys of each ship that brought the Portuguese to Hawaii and a list of surnames of the families that came.

Hapai said the main hall also will have a kitchenette, because the space will host meetings, special events and reunions.

But funding continues to be an issue.

In addition to the initial $1 million grant-in-aid in 2016, the center received a $200,000 grant-in-aid in 2018 and a $150,000 grant-in-aid in 2019, as well as a $25,000 grant from the Atherton Foundation.

The nonprofit itself also has raised more than $285,000 for the project, and more than $1 million in in-kind services have been donated.

Hapai said the center was going to launch its major fundraising campaign in June 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March.

Additionally, the 2018 grant allocation was allowed to lapse, because Hapai said all the funding necessary to build the facility was not in place.

“So we lost $200,000,” she said. “… When we got the first million, we didn’t know that we had to have all our monies in place before we went forward, because we were just starting to fund-raise. That was the beginning. … So last year, they let it lapse. They said you have to have it shovel-ready.”

The center now is working to get the $150,000 grant-in-aid money released.

At this point, the cost of the project is approximately $1.2 million for the site work and building.

“And that’s what we’re asking our architect, engineers and general contractor to do — give us something for that amount, so we can go to the Legislature and say, ‘we’re shovel-ready. Release the $150,000,’ because that’s what it’s dependent on,” she said.

However, another $200,000 to $250,000 would be needed for furnishings and other items “to make it functional.”

Hapai said plans and pricing should be finalized by May, “and we should be able to go in for permitting.”

Construction could start later this year.

“It’s been a long haul,” Hapai said. “But, you know, when we got the bomb dropped, where we were looking at $2.2 million and suddenly it’s $4-$5 (million), I kind of felt like I was on a ship with my ancestors and we were going around the tip of South America … and we had to ride through the rough waters. We’re going to get there.”


Donations to the center, a nonprofit organization under the auspices of the Hawaii Island Portuguese Chamber of Commerce, can be mailed to HIPCC Cultural and Educational Center, P.O. Box 1120, Hilo, Hawaii 96721, or email for more information.

Email Stephanie Salmons at

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