This article originally appeared in the Hawaii Tribune Herald written by Stephanie Salmons.
An anonymous $50,000 donation, slipped through the mail slot of the Palace Theater on New Year’s Eve, will help the theater with fire-safety upgrades and renovation of an antiquated sprinkler system — two things that must happen before a long-planned air conditioning project can move forward.
Executive Director Robin Worley said the theater, which opened in 1925, has been working on getting air conditioning installed for the better part of a decade.
In 2017, the theater was awarded $130,000 in state-funded grants for the air conditioning project, but while going through the permitting process was told the theater would have to pass a fire inspection.
That inspection took place in August, but fire safety concerns brought the project to a halt.
“It was a complete surprise, because for years, we never had an issue with the fire department,” Palace Board President Wendy Peskin said.
When she joined the board, Peskin said the theater was open and running, and while many improvements were made, the sprinkler system, which was installed in 1930, had been turned off after a leak drenched the theater.
But when the theater applied for the building permits for the air conditioning project, Peskin said “they went over everything more closely than they had in any prior year,” telling theater officials that having visible sprinklers conveys the impression it was a “sprinkled” building.
“Because (there) was no requirement when the building was built to have sprinklers, had we never had them, this might not be an issue at all,” she said. “But because we have them and we can see them, we must improve them. We must keep it up-to-date.”
The theater will now have to repair and expand the existing sprinkler system and replace numerous sprinkler heads, among other steps, like installing fire suppression doors and other hardware.
The theater also will need a “flow test” to evaluate water pressure to the system, which will take place within the next few weeks.
“If it isn’t high enough to make the system work, we may have to change the pipe sizes, in which case we’re talking a half-million dollars. We’d probably have to shut the doors if that happens,” Peskin said.
“But I’m very hopeful the flow test will be adequate, and our pipe system is adequate, and we need only to put new sprinkler heads on.”
The Palace sent out a year-end letter to donors, explaining the new requirements and sharing that the safety measures will likely top $100,000.
“The community responded,” Worley said. “We want to cry. It’s so beautiful.”
More than $20,000 came directly from donations ranging from $25 to $3,500.
Worley said they don’t know who left the $50,000 cashier’s check, but it came with a handwritten note that specified the money was to go toward the fire safety requirements.
“So hoping this delay won’t be permanent,” it reads. “Let’s look ahead!”
“I want to make sure that person hears us say thank you,” Worley said. “A big thank you with capital letters and exclamation points.”
According to Peskin, there’s about $42,000 left to raise for the fire safety upgrades, and a similar amount will be needed for the air conditioning.
Although the air conditioning project has been delayed, Worley said the state has given the theater until the end of 2020 to use the state grant funds.
The Palace also will seek more than $200,000 in additional grants this year for capital improvement projects that will be used for the remainder of the fire safety upgrades, the next phases of the air conditioning project, as well as building repairs after the theater suffered damage in the 6.9 magnitude earthquake last May and from Hurricane Lane in August, which dumped record rainfall in parts of East Hawaii.
Those interested in donating to the Palace Theater for the fire safety upgrades, air conditioning or building restoration can send checks to the Palace at 38 Haili St., Hilo, Hawaii 96720 or call 934-7010.