S.P.A.C.E. – 1. Planning and construction

It all began with the vision that our juggling group shared when we purchased Bellyacres in 1987. I understood that founding our two tax exempt organizations imposed a moral duty to serve our local community. My approach to fulfilling this obligation was the creation of a performance arts facility and organising twenty-five years of HICCUP Circus programs.

As the main, and sometimes the only, long term resident member for many years at Bellyacres I knew building a facility would involve a huge commitment of my time and energy. It was a daunting undertaking but a few factors tipped me towards making a go for it. Much to my surprise, my naïve and inexperienced application for a special permit to build S.P.A.C.E. was accepted by the Hawai’i County Planning Department in 2001. Secondly a core group of key Bellyacres members and local friends, stepped up strongly providing encouragement and support in the design and fundraising phases of S.P.A.C.E.. Also, my networking efforts with members of government organizations like the Hawai’i County Council, the Hawai’i State Senate and House of Representatives, the State Department for Business and Economic Development, and with Chris Yuen the newly appointed planning department director suggested that the timing was good for our project.

I was aware that moving forward with S.P.A.C.E. was a huge step but my sense of adventure and the support of countless other people led me to continue. This was a real community effort and, throughout the whole project, I consulted with a host of people who became involved in all the major decision-making.

My close friend, Lorn Douglas, became a major supporter and donated $20,000 in start up funding to cover the costs of fundraising, permitting, and planning. We needed a business plan and it was obvious that providing circus classes and community rentals in low income Puna would never produce sufficient income to support the facility. Following furtive discussions amongst Bellyacres members, we rekindled an old dream to entice amateur and professional circus performers from outside Hawai’i to come to S.P.A.C.E. for professional workshops, stay at Bellyacres, and pay us lots of money. This plan was easy to sell to our membership because, in their minds, it elevated our status in the performance arts world and offered them the chance to be employed as professional workshop leaders and instructors.

Our principal short-term goal was to seek $800,000 in grants and/or loans to build a 9,700-square foot performance arts educational center on 2.5 acres at Bellyacres. We had already explained to County Planning that the site was part of an 11-acre parcel which included a number of houses, campsites, and other structures that would all support S.P.A.C.E. programs.  

The anchor for our proposed financial plan was the marketing of a first-rate, residential, professional training program which we hoped would provide revenue to support our HICCUP programs for children throughout Hawai’i County and State. Unfortunately, S.P.A.C.E. began operations just as the 2008 economic depression hit the world economies and we soon discovered that our potential workshop candidates were on reduced budgets and preferred to avoid the expensive flights to Hawai’i. Our location proved to be a serious disadvantage for the overall circus performing arts industry and S.P.A.C.E. was never able to obtain any share of the professional residential workshop market. As the years passed we also faced competition from new circus training opportunities that were offered in Honolulu, which is considerably easier and cheaper to fly to than the Big Island.

Our HICCUP Circus was a feature at most Big Island festivals and parades, and also performed for community events and benefits across the Hawai’ian Islands. We had weekly classes in schools and community centers, as well as organized summer and winter camps. Our ‘Juggling For Success’ program served over 8,400 students in seven Big Island and Kauai Schools. For many years, the HICCUPS performed over 60 shows annually to audiences exceeding 15,000. Our ‘edutainment’ shows focused on drug prevention, recycling, protecting our oceans, and our land. Thousands of people learned about our HICCUP program  through features on Hawai’i TV, in magazines, and in all the local newspapers. However even though it was one of the foremost youth circus programs in the country unfortunately HICCUP could never become a profitable money making business while it focused on serving children from rural Puna and Hilo.

Progress in creating S.P.A.C.E. was excruciatingly slow and over the years I discovered that tenacity, determination, persistence, and very thick skin are all essential attributes. I also learned that sometimes it’s necessary to give up on the dream and to let it go. I gave up on the S.P.A.C.E. vision three times.

In 1999, while working on sabbatical for Belfast Community Circus for three months, I discovered first hand the woes of building and moving into a new circus facility. I concluded then that the HICCUP program would be better off with a traveling homeless circus. But when I came home and saw my HICCUP kids burning their feet on hot mats in the midday sun, juggling fire in the wind on tall unicycles, and climbing on the backs of soaking acrobats in the pouring rain, I decided that Puna kids (and adults) deserved their own covered facility. Plus, I saw in Belfast how we could also use SPACE to provide a much-needed facility to grow the social capital of our underserved neighbourhood.

In 2000, once again, I felt the burden was proving too heavy for my shoulders and let go of the dream until my passion and commitment to be part of providing solutions in this world compelled me to continue my efforts to nurture the health of our children and community.

For the next six years, I dedicated way too much of my time and energy into jumping through hoops and avoiding flying fire balls. I attended every community business workshop offered in Hilo, Kona, Honolulu, and Maui. On a daily basis, I researched capital campaign funding sources and looked for opportunities to schmooze with funders and philanthropists. I was constantly working on every grant opportunity I could and mailed out dozens of big fat packages of important paperwork, with hopes that they would one day bring in the funding we needed. I was eating, sleeping, and dreaming about S.P.A.C.E..

For month after month, nothing came back—only refusals and disappointment. Finally, disillusionment and despair set in. Even though, as a juggler, I was used to attempting the seemingly impossible, I felt like giving up. All we had in our capital fund account was about $28,000 that we had raised from our own community over many years with mostly $5-$20 donations from supporters, benefit events, and performance fundraisers. I hit the wall for the third time and decided to downsize the dream and just build another larger Puna-style cheap shack somewhere in the bush. I totally let go of the S.P.A.C.E. plan.

Then miraculously on January 2nd, 2006, just two hours after sharing my defeatist decision with two HICCUP staff, I got a phone call from Bennet Dorrance informing me that his family foundation had decided to give us $250,000 for the S.P.A.C.E. project. The dream was back on and it was time to juggle bigger fires!

Over the next year, we leveraged this challenge grant and raised our capital campaign balance to about $340,000 but it was still far short of the $780,000 needed to build our proposed S.P.A.C.E. facility so I consulted with my team and made an executive decision to do the best I could with what we had. After seven years of serious design work, permitting, fundraising, and grant writing efforts, I accepted that we may not ever raise the balance to fully construct all of our planned buildings, but using some creative thinking the funds we had accumulated could fulfill much of the dream.

With less than the half the funding needed to complete the whole project, we had meetings with our architect and engineer and revised our plans. We eliminated half of the grandiose building we had originally designed which left us with a stand-alone training facility which we supplemented with a multi-purpose greenhouse structure, We were still delighted and very excited.

After twenty years of planning, designing, and fundraising S.P.A.C.E. construction finally began in March 2007. We started with the greenhouse, hiring a single professional to guide our own work crew in the pouring of the concrete footings and erection of the frame. We then installed the walls and plywood floor ourselves with recycled materials from our previous big top tent floor. Our crew consisted of myself, a local friend, and 10-12 work exchange young people with absolutely no construction experience…and it worked! The interior rooms and shelving were magically manifested in a couple of days using all recycled framing and doors and the 2,500-square foot ‘Green Room’ was completed in June of 2007. It has since provided workshop space, storage for props, costumes, and equipment, and also served as a school classroom. When this phase One of S.P.A.C.E. was complete we celebrated with a big community party, featuring the dancing rhythms of our resident marimba band.

Phase Two of our S.P.A.C.E. construction was the grand pavilion—our state-of-the-art Polynesian-style 3,500-square foot multi-purpose center with bathrooms, storage, and offices. I had drawn up a list of all the local skilled trades people I knew and called upon them to give support if they could. As our former Hawai’i County Mayor Billy Kenoi famously said, “If can, can” and our community decided, “we can.”

Virtually all of the work—from the septic system, to the concrete slab, to the building and interior decorating—was done by locals. Billy—the crew boss for the eight person building crew—was the only one who couldn’t see his own house from the S.P.A.C.E. roof top. Our Bellyacres work exchange team also volunteered hundreds of hours to support the project. Everyone gave much more than we contracted them for—continuously going above and beyond—helping to realize the dream of a community facility. 

The actual construction demonstrated a beautiful labor of love and expression of community togetherness. For everyone who participated in its creation S.P.A.C.E. will always be much more than the sum of the materials that were used to build it. S.P.A.C.E. took exactly four months to construct including the extensive concrete slab work. The basic frame was formed with forty majestic ohia tree posts and lots of ohia bracing. There was about 2,000 board feet of ohia trim work, plus bathroom counters made from beautiful mango wood—all harvested from Bellyacres own forest. The design incorporated natural lighting in all rooms and natural flow ventilation. We installed a 5.6 Kw solar system in 2007—just before solar panels became cheap and popular—and we relied 100% upon catchment water.

Almost all of the commercial spruce/pine lumber was utility grade, sanded, and refurbished by our crew members and everything was pre-painted several times primarily by Joe Hoffman before being put into place. I was extremely proud of all that we managed to pull off and I attempted to honor each of the many people who made it all possible during my speech at our grand opening ceremony on November 2, 2007. Crowning all this glory was the fact that we had successfully achieved all this in full compliance with county codes and S.P.A.C.E. was fully permitted for use just days before we started our programs.

We were legal and complaint for once…but not for long!  

Upon completion of the S.P.A.C.E. pavilion, I was emotionally and physically burned out and felt it was time for me to step down. With my recent separation from my wife, I decided to make my three-year-old daughter the focus of my life and to give her all the time, love, and parenting that I could. I resigned from my executive director role found an excellent replacement in Jenna Way, and then recruited a team to take over running the HICCUP Circus. My plan was to be free from day to day management and to let others take the wheel. I should have known that God laughs at renegades like me who believe that we can plan our lives. Life just doesn’t work like that!

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

3 thoughts on “S.P.A.C.E. – 1. Planning and construction

  1. “God laughs at renegades like me who believe that we can plan our lives. Life just doesn’t work out like that!”
    Oh but it does work out! Hooray!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An intentional community needs a visionary to command the and steer the inertia on the path of the vision. S.P.A.C.E. was basically an impossible dream but Graham didn’t buy that reality. When I bought into the dream I didn’t realize how that project would impact the greater community.

    Lower Puna is very rural and in the those years there was not much stimulation for the children. So many became drug addicts and became parents before they were 20. 100’s, actually 1,000’s of children and adults have been inspired by the H.I.C.C.U.P. Circus and teachings in S.P.A.C.E. My daughter, Thula (thulamoon.com) was a H.I.C.C.U.P. kid and developed her skills there. She now performs circus internationally.

    Although Graham now lives in England, the circus continues to educate and inspire.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I really miss S.P.A..C.E. I was to bad it was shut down. I never really don’t know why other than some residents in the area didn’t like it and somehow they were able to shut it down. I use to go to it everytime I was in the area. So much fun and good eats, arts and crafts were good. I sure wish there was a way to start it up again.

    Liked by 1 person

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