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First movie theater in 12 years is being planned for Molokai

Owners of RWH Chen Building want to open cinema in Kaunakakai

Coming soon to the island of Molokai – the first movie theater in more than a decade.

Brad and Grace Ellis, owners of the RWH Chen Building along Kaunakakai town’s main drag, are planning to open a 48-seat movie theater in the recently renovated space.

“When we started renovating it, we were amazed at the number of people who were saying we could use a movie theater,” Brad Ellis said Monday. “So we got to thinking about it, researched and studied and decided maybe this would work and be a nice thing for the community to do.”

Located at 61 Ala Malama Street next door to Molokai Fish and Dive and across the street from Kalele Bookstore, the RWH Chen Building was once home to Misaki’s Grocery and now houses two local businesses — Hawaii’s Finest and Something for Everybody. There’s currently a third open unit on the far left side of the building, which is where the movie theater would be located.

Project consultant Luigi Manera said the theater would have one screen and a small concession booth, likely a popcorn or hot dog machine as well as a soda dispenser. The theater would likely feature a movie per week, with showtimes around 5 or 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. and extended matinee hours on weekends.

Ellis said he’d also like to have occasional special events, such as “mommy and me” hours for parents to bring their kids for cartoons in the morning or midafternoon. The theater could also be used as a meeting space for community organizations or families who might want to rent out the whole theater.

“Lots of friends who were born and raised have to go off island to see movies,” Ellis said. “It would be a great thing to bring back to the island.”

The last movie theater on Molokai was the Maunaloa Town Cinemas on the west end, which closed in 2008 after Molokai Ranch shut down and laid off more than 120 employees.

Molokai resident Lori Buchanan said the movie theater was a good excuse to make the long drive out to Maunaloa.

“The attraction was to go to the movies and get Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Buchanan said.

She also recalled two other theaters in the ’60s and ’70s — an open-air theater with chairs and a screen just north of St. Damien of Molokai Church, and the indoor Kamoi Theater in the location of what is now the Kaunakakai post office.

“My most prominent memory was that you always had to watch out for the cockroaches,” Buchanan said of the Kamoi Theater. “Once in a while you had to go check your feet or where you sat. Just had bombucha cockroaches. Other than that, was awesome.”

However, as chairwoman of the Molokai Planning Commission, Buchanan is concerned about the proposed project, mostly because the community hasn’t had a chance to weigh in on it.

Because a movie theater is a permitted use in the Country Town Business district, the project doesn’t need to come before the commission for a public hearing, said Deputy Planning Director Jordan Hart. However, he said the renovation did come to the commission for consideration, since Kaunakakai town is within the special management area.

Last week, the Molokai Planning Commission also heard Ellis’ request to reduce the parking requirements. Per County Code, a theater needs to have one off-street space for every four seats, or a total of 12 spaces for a 48-seat theater. However, Ellis and Manera said the lack of space in the area makes it difficult to meet the requirements; they asked to provide eight spots instead. The commission recommended denying the request, saying that parking was already limited in town and that it would create more congestion.

“I think if you’re required to provide additional parking in an area where you already know it’s heavily congested, you should work hard to try and achieve the required off-site parking,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan also had concerns about safety and “encouraging loitering,” since most businesses close up shop early, and the theater would be one of the few still operating at night. She also worried that there was “little to no notification to the public or outreach.”

While it’s not required because the theater is a permitted use, “common sense on Molokai tells you try to be transparent with the public,” Buchanan said.

“I don’t know how I feel,” she said of the theater. “There may be unintended adverse effects down the road, but they’re clearly not evident now. Following that precautionary principle, let’s wait and see how this goes.”

Kevin Misaki, general manager of Misaki’s, was surprised to hear of the plans but was supportive.

“I think the people of Molokai have been waiting for a movie theater,” he said.

Misaki used to take his kids to the movies in Maunaloa but hasn’t been to a theater in several years.

“I feel so sorry for the teenagers here,” he said. “They don’t really have anything to do and places to go. So even a simple date, at least you can take them to a movie.”

Teri Waros, owner of Kalele Bookstore across the street from the building, thought a movie theater would be “good for the neighborhood.”

“We need one on this island,” she said. “It would be a great addition. I’m in full support, because it gives kids something to do. We can go to the movies again. It’s activities for families.”

Ellis, meanwhile, said he was talking with other merchants to see if there might be four other parking spots available to meet the required 12. He added that the front of the building is well lit and that a security light as well as a camera was recently installed in the back. And, having a “respectable business” operating late at night could help discourage loitering in the area, he said.

Ellis added that he was “more than happy to talk to the community and see what their wishes are.”

“We want to do this for the community,” he said. “We don’t want to impose anything.”

A retired lawyer, Ellis moved from Los Angeles to Molokai three years ago with his wife Grace, who now teaches math and science at Molokai High School. They purchased the RWH Chen Building — which they titled using the first initials of their parents’ names — in November 2017 and renovated the building in early 2018. The first tenant arrived in May 2019.

Ellis said the theater’s opening would depend on when the parking issue is settled. It would then take about six months to complete.

“If we could be open for the holiday season, that would be great,” he said.

Planning Director Michele McLean, who will have the last say on the parking requirements, said she hadn’t made a decision yet.

“I would like to reach out to others on Molokai to get their input before I decide,” McLean said Monday. “If I were to consider approving it despite the commission’s recommendation, I have to have a good reason, because I take their recommendation seriously.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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