‘Imiloa prepares for reopening

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Ka'iu Kimura talks about the reopening of the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Anthony Olayon sorts crayons into separate containers last week for students that will be attending the Halau Lamaku summer camp at the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo.

It was quiet inside ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center last week as the facility continues to weather a 15-month shutdown due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

But work is underway in preparation of its limited reopening next month.

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Closed since March 2020, ‘Imiloa will reopen on weekends to members starting July 17 and 18, and to the general public July 24 and 25. Online ticket sales begin July 3.

“We look forward to restarting our normal museum operations — in COVID times,” Executive Director Ka‘iu Kimura said. “So, of course, like every other business, we are going to be implementing COVID protocols. However, we look forward to reopening the exhibit hall, the planetarium, and the facilities to the public to come and explore as a museum.”

The facility will begin offering public admissions on weekends, and expand from there its schedule for the general public, she said.

“When we first closed, we were just like everybody else probably, just kind of like in a whirlwind of what’s happening, how does this impact what we do,” said Kimura. “We can’t have the center opened for regular operation, so we looked at pivoting to online programming and offering online field trip experiences because school was still in session at that time. We experimented, and that was a really hard pivot to look at taking ‘Imiloa completely online.”

Staff worked from home to build better online platforms and the facility launched “‘Imiloa @ Home” for family learning activities, before pivoting to Halau Lamaku, a new in-person academic and social enrichment program for elementary students that launched in July.

“We’re excited to let the general public back in,” Kimura said. “With all of the research and activities that have been produced over this year of COVID, we’re excited to repurpose a lot of that to enhance and supplement the ‘Imiloa experience, in the exhibit hall, in the garden, in the planetarium. So all of the effort put in over the past year to build Halau Lamaku will manifest in different ways now when we open to the public.”

‘Imiloa is still guided by the county’s capacity for indoor gatherings and has not yet reopened to group rentals or events, she said.

“We’re looking to reopen that function based on capacity guidelines through the county later in the fall, once Halau Lamaku summer programs are done and once we’ve sort of reopened to the general public. Then we’ll phase back in facility rentals … .”

Financial impacts

As a part of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, budget cuts looming before the UH system will impact ‘Imiloa’s allocation, Kimura said.

Additionally, starting on March 18, 2020, all of the science center’s revenue streams that come in through ticket sales, event rentals, the gift shop and restaurant, “came to a screeching halt.”

“We estimate we’ve lost over $1 million in revenue that comes in through our programs,” she said.

‘Imiloa, however, sought grants and sponsorships to keep programs running and received some federal coronavirus relief funding through Hawaii County.

But Kimura said it’s difficult at this point to determine how these revenue losses will impact the facility in the long-term. Grant funding has helped close that gap.

“We know that people are excited to come back, but looking at the overall annual fiscal projections, we are conservatively planning for admission-type revenue to come in and so therefore, we need to continue to be vigilant and go after sponsorship and competitive funding to support our operations as we ramp back up.”

Halau Lamaku

Although ‘Imiloa has been closed to visitors at large, it did open in a limited capacity to keiki last year with Halau Lamaku.

Kimura said the facility’s staff rallied after witnessing the impacts the pandemic had on childcare and school schedules.

They determined that “with our facility, our staff expertise and our resources that we would reopen the center in a limited capacity,” providing full-day programming supporting kids’ needs to be amongst their peers, to meet school requirements and provide families with a childcare option, she said.

‘Imiloa offered five sessions of Halau Lamaku for keiki kindergarten through fifth-grade from July 2020 to May 28.

Kimura said the center brought on additional staff, sought federal coronavirus relief funding and the program was licensed through the state Department of Human Services.

‘Imiloa is licensed for 64 children each session.

“It was just really incredible to pivot from a science center operation to basically a school operation, building up staff capacity, building up curriculum to support the kids’ learning and growth throughout that time,” she said.

Kimura said ‘Imiloa supported the children in their online learning and supplemented their learning the remainder of the day with ‘Imiloa’s place-based, culture-based STEM activities.

Halau Lamaku will return today for seven week-long sessions before ‘Imiloa reopens to the public.

“Due to the popularity and interest in the program, when we opened registration online, we sold out seven weeks, 64 keiki per week, within a matter of six minutes,” Kimura said.

The center will be closed to the public weekdays through July to support the Halau Lamaku program, allowing for the maximum amount of kids within COVID safety parameters, she said.

When the next academic year begins, Kimura said ‘Imiloa will chart its course based on the community’s needs.

“So Halau Lamaku will definitely be offered through school breaks … and whether or not it would be offered throughout the school weeks has yet to be determined as we watch the school schedules become more formalized,” she said.

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‘Imiloa in July also will pilot a two-week Halau Lamaku program in West Hawaii, done in partnership with the Hualalai Ohana Foundation.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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