For more than two years, Sandra Clark, a recreation assistant at Waimanalo District Park, noticed pieces of rusted bolts falling from the ceiling of the park’s gymnasium.
When city officials inspected the facility last June, they found metal screens on the gym’s ceiling so corroded they were in danger of collapsing. So the facility, once a gathering place for young people in Waimanalo, was closed immediately for safety reasons.
The facility is scheduled to reopen in April 2018 after undergoing $3.12 million in repairs, said Nathan Serota, a spokesman for the city Department of Parks and Recreation. The city awarded the contract for the work in late March and, according to Serota, construction will begin this summer.
Still, the long closure has left many in the community frustrated by what they believe was a city’s slow response to problems at the gym and lack of information about the repair project.
“This was a safe haven for those kids,” said Clarke, known in the community as Aunty Sandy. “We nurtured them.”
With the gym open, parents knew their children had a safe place to go after school. Clarke said she and other adults at the park would stay late into the evening to see that all the children made it home safely.
Many feel that as a largely Native Hawaiian community, lawmakers sideline issues in Waimanalo.
Waimanalo Neighborhood Board chair Wilson Kekoa Ho said they had to “just harass“ the city about the gym. “Every month we bring it up. Every month we talk to the parks and recreation director. Every month we push, and we push, and we push.”
Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office and the parks department declined to answer questions about where the money will come from.
“It’s really frustrating for people to try to find out what’s happening,” said Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who chairs the Parks Committee. “It’s even frustrating for us.”
Dylan Spencer lives with his family in a van in the parking lot of Waimanalo District Park. On an average weekday afternoon, Spencer said about 150 kids would come to the gym to play sports or just hang out.
“It’s a ghost town now,” he said.
In the 11 months since the gym closed, Spencer said he’s watched a teenage girl once involved in sports fall in with the wrong crowd. Now, he said, she started using drugs.
“It actually gives more room for our babies to be more on the street, you know, getting into trouble,” said Neighborhood Board member Kukana Kama-Toth said.
Volleyball and other sports teams have had to relocate to Kailua, but the commute is a burden on families and some children can’t find rides to the neighboring town.
The program perhaps most affected by the closure is the city’s Summer Fun program.
With the facility closed, the five park employees and about 60 kids participating in the program had to make do with the two remaining rooms available at the park.
“Summer Fun was really hard,” said Louanna Kaio, a Waimanalo resident who works for the program.
The kids were cooped up, she said, and it was difficult to keep them protected from the summer heat.
Summer Fun at the district park might get even more difficult this year when construction begins. The gym sits just a few yards from the other rooms, so noise and debris from construction might be a stone’s throw away.
Some Waimanalo residents, frustrated by what they see as the lethargic pace of city operations, refer to the city and county as “sitting and counting.”
In January, seven months after the gym closed, the city opened bids for the repairs. The city originally awarded the contract to MEI Corporation, the lowest bidder, but the company withdrew the bid. This prolonged the process to repair the facility.
The contract for the work was awarded in March to Abhe and Svoboda, a Kapolei contractor.
“By city standards this is lightning speed,” said Alan Kekoa Texeira, community affairs director for Councilman Ikaika Anderson. Anderson represents Waimanalo, Kailua and Kaneohe.
The bidding process is required by state law as a safeguard against corruption. It ensures that government officials aren’t awarding construction contracts to their friends or family, Anderson said.
Capital improvement projects over $1 million usually get their own line item on the city’s annual capital budget, according to Kobayashi. The Waimanalo project isn’t a line item on the coming year’s proposed capital budget or in fiscal year 2017 or 2016 CIP budgets.
Some Waimanalo residents feel the poor condition of their parks facilities in general reflects larger inequities in city services doled out to Oahu’s various communities.
About 65 percent of Waimanalo residents are Native Hawaiian, according to 2010 data from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. That’s double the populations in neighboring communities of Kailua and Hawaii Kai. Waimanalo also has a higher percentage of low income residents than its more affluent neighbors, according to data from the Hawaii State Office of Planning.
“Waimanalo is always put second to other communities,” Neighborhood Board member Shannon Alivado said. “And that’s unfortunate because of who we serve.”
Waimanalo resident and Nation of Hawaii official Brandon Makaawaawa agrees.
“It’s a form of discrimination for our community,” he said.
Councilman Anderson said that’s “absolutely not” the case.
Anderson said that the Waimanalo Bay Beach Park improvements are his “number one priority” this year. He also said repairing the gym at the district park and pavilion at the beach park are top priorities.
But some of Anderson’s fellow council members have expressed concern that certain Oahu communities may receive more park improvements than others.
Kobayashi, the new chair of the Parks Committee, said she and other committee members are touring parks around the island in part to see if the city maintains parks in all five districts equally.
She pointed out that even parks in the urban core wait years for construction projects.
But she also said Waianae, another low-income area with a large Native Hawaiian population, seems to receive less city services than other areas.
Councilwoman Kymberly Pine represents Waianae.
At a Budget Committee hearing last week, she sharply questioned Robert Kroning, director of the Department of of Design and Construction, on why repairs to the gym at Waianae District Park have been backlogged for the last three years. A leaking roof has rendered a second floor room in the gym unstable, forcing after-school programs to move out.
Pine said she would like to see funding cuts to the upgrade of Thomas Square in Kakaako and projects in Ala Moana Beach Park until the Waianae gym repairs are complete.
“Those parks are fine,” she said. Those parks, “don’t have after-school programs in the volume that we have in Waianae.”
She criticized the administration’s request for $4.7 million to redesign Thomas Square and install a statue of King Kamehameha III in the Kakaako park.
“I’m not Kamehameha III,” Pine said. “But I think he’d want these funds to go to Hawaiian children.”