Proposed 2021 Shutdown of the Blaisdell Center Delayed
Why the mayor says the big project to renovate the concert hall and arena have been put on hold.
Hawai‘i Opera Theatre’s full staging of La Traviata.
Photo: Courtesy of Hawai‘i Opera Theatre
It looks like the lights won’t be going off at the entire Blaisdell Center anytime soon. Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced Monday, Feb. 3 that renovations that were planned to begin Jan. 1, 2021 will be delayed due to financial concerns.
“Given that the final construction cost is yet unknown for the last 4.16 miles of our rail system … in addition to a new administration and City Council starting in less than one year, we decided that it is a logical time to pause the project,” Caldwell said in a statement. “This is disappointing as we fully believe that major renovations are needed …”
The city is still planning on renovating at least one of the performance venues at the Blaisdell in the next fiscal year. However, the news may have been a relief for local groups who depend on the concert hall or arena. Senior editor Don Wallace spoke to some of the players involved about the potential impact of the closure. Here is the story as it ran in our January 2020 issue.
Starting this New Year’s Day, you can count down 365 days to the night the lights go off at the Blaisdell Center—for at least three years—if the facility undergoes a $772 million public-private partnership redevelopment. “Doing nothing was the only option not considered,” says Guy Kaulukukui, director of the city’s Department of Enterprise Services. “We were state of the art 50 years ago, [but] no longer are.”
“There are things that need to happen at the Blaisdell. It’s tired,” agrees Andrew Morgan, who took over as executive director at the Hawai‘i Opera Theatre in May. Besides a gut-rehab of the concert hall and arena, there are plans for a new 1,500-seat performance hall and sports pavilion to go with 500 more parking spaces and flourishes like fountains, restaurants and bars.
Memories are fresh from how the Honolulu Symphony died following the Blaisdell’s decision to bump its 2007-2008 season in favor of a three-month Disney roadshow of The Lion King. “It will be challenging for us and for the opera,” says Jonathan Parrish, outgoing executive director of the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra, resurrected from the old company in 2016. “For [Ballet Hawai‘i], their big thing is The Nutcracker in December. That’s their whole year. For us, our entire season, 16 weeks of work, is in that venue.” Ballet Hawai‘i president Susan Schull knows her bottom line: “The bread and butter for every ballet company is The Nutcracker and we’re no different.”
So if the blackout puts local groups at risk, who is the project for? Promoters like Broadway in Hawai‘i, a division of powerhouse MagicSpace Entertainment, who’ve brought in such shows as Cats, Wicked and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Kaulukukui points to the success of those shows and says the Blaisdell Center added Rent in 2019 and Jersey Boys this year “to build the market leading up to the close, so we can show promoters it’s a viable market. We’re priming the pump for the reopening.” For local groups, though, “There’s only a little we can physically do to help.”
Unfortunately, Morgan says, the Blaisdell Concert Hall “seats 2,000 and change, the Hawai‘i Theatre seats 1,400 and after that you’re looking at 500- or 600-seat houses. None of them have the orchestra-size pit.” And, says Parrish, “a production at the Hawai‘i Theatre costs us three times as much.” Each group is looking at high schools, but Morgan says that McKinley, where the opera gave its first-ever performance in 1961, “won’t give us a date three months in advance, which is just a nonstarter for us.”
Which brings us to the Tom Moffatt Waikīkī Shell, closed until spring for its own face-lift. “We live in the most beautiful place in the planet; our orchestra should play outdoors more than any place in the world,” says Parrish. But the space is large and, well, there’s weather.
“We are currently investing in the Shell so it can hang bigger sets and speakers for concerts,” says Kaulukukui. “Something we could take up is a system of overhead sails to cover the concrete and grass so it would be dry on a rainy day—anything that will make it a more appealing venue.” Or, to put it another way, any port in a storm.
The lights were scheduled to go out Dec. 31, 2020.