Funding released for Paia cultural center

Heritage Hall, a joint effort of the Puerto Rican and Portuguese communities on Maui, received a major funding shot in the arm with Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s release of $1.5 million for the community/cultural center in Paia.

“Heritage Hall represents a partnership between the Maui Puerto Rican Association and the Portuguese Association of Maui that is not only mutually beneficial but provides a resource for the larger community,” Abercrombie said in a news release Tuesday. “I applaud their collaborative spirit and commitment to perpetuating two proud cultures with deep roots in the islands.”

The $4.3 million center to be built on more than a half-acre across the street from the old Paia Sugar Mill will provide two separate cultural resource centers – for the Portuguese and for the Puerto Ricans on Maui, said Heritage Hall President Audrey M. Guerrero in a news release.

Each center will offer cultural programs “intended to provide the children of Maui with a glimpse into the histories and heritages of these two ethnic groups,” said Guerrero. There will be resources for genealogy and family tree research as well.

“We are very grateful that the governor recognizes the need to preserve the cultural diversity of Hawaii,” said Guerrero.

Heritage Hall also will include a community center with a certified kitchen for community use, a conference room, offices, space for lease to a nonprofit or for-profit organization and a brick oven, said Heritage Hall officials.

Although the entire $4.3 million has not been secured yet, Heritage Hall officials hope to obtain building permits for the two-story, two-building structure by the end of this month and to break ground in April, said Audrey Rocha Reed, secretary of the Heritage Hall’s board. The project, with a total of about 6,000 square feet of interior space, will take about a year to complete, she said.

Earl Kono of Riecke Sunnland Kono is the project’s architect, and Arisumi Bros. is the general contractor.

The state funds actually were approved in 2012 but not released until Tuesday. When a prospective $800,000 grant fell through, state officials withheld the funding, questioning the viability of the project, said Rocha Reed.

“At that point, I was so discouraged,” she recalled.

State Budget and Finance Director Kalbert Young, House Speaker Joe Souki, Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui and Sandy Baz, county budget director, were among those advocating for the release of the funds, Rocha Reed said. Still, the turning point may have occurred at the Maui County Senior Fair in October attended by the governor.

Rocha Reed went up to Abercrombie and made a personal appeal. She indicated that he may have been under the impression that the funds were ready for release. After explaining the situation to the governor, Rocha Reed said Abercrombie told her: “I promise you, this will be done.”

It was done Tuesday.

“We’re really grateful to everybody,” said Rocha Reed.

The state funds will bring the project closer to its $4.3 million goal. The major funding began with $300,000 from the county for planning and design in 2003, Rocha Reed said. The process involved a zoning change and community plan amendment.

The county provided $1.5 million more in the fiscal year ending June 2013 for construction, and another $1.5 million is included in the mayor’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which will require approval by the County Council.

Other grants have come from the Atherton Family, A&B and Matson foundations.

Assuming that the council approves the latest request, Heritage Hall will be seeking a grant from the McInerny Foundation for the final $55,000 to $75,000, she said.

The land for the building was purchased from Alexander & Baldwin for $20,000 in April 2006, according to the group’s website. Heritage Hall added that the land is valued much higher on the market, $775,000 in a 2006 appraisal.

A&B offered the land to be used jointly by the Portuguese and Puerto Rican communities, the Heritage Hall website said.

The Maui Puerto Rican Association, founded in 1980, and the Portuguese Association of Maui, formed in 1984, joined forces to create the nonprofit Heritage Hall. Both organizations raised the funds for the purchase of the property.

The centerpiece of the project is the cultural resource centers, which are “intended for children because they need to learn the story of how the Portuguese and Puerto Ricans came to Hawaii . . . and why Hawaii is richer because of the diversity,” said Rocha Reed.

The children will be able to eat ethnic foods cooked in the brick oven, churn their own butter, look into “grandma’s trunk” and see what those immigrants brought with them. Those items include lanterns, a charcoal iron, metal strips with holes to grate vegetables, “things that children have no idea about,” she said.

“These are the things we want them to come and see and touch and handle,” she said.

The regional government of the Azores, one of the parts of Portugal from where many immigrants came, has been sending packages of children’s books in both English and Portuguese. The regional government of Madeira, from where another large portion of the Portuguese emigrated, has not been as helpful, she said.

The Heritage Hall board initially has planned to budget about $50,000 for annual operations once the building is completed, Rocha Reed said. The leasing of the 750 square feet of space to a nonprofit or for-profit venture is aimed at providing “steady income” for the hall, she said. The Portuguese and Puerto Rican associations will have to lease their office space.

When asked if Heritage Hall will need permanent staff, Rocha Reed replied, “please, I am 72 . . . There is just so much we can do.”

The plan is to run the Heritage Hall with volunteers for the first two years but after that possibly hiring at least a part-time specialist, she said.

* Lee Imada can be reached at