Taking A Chance On Kekaha Sugar Office

Jimmy Wray at the renovated Kekaha Sugar office, built in 1889. Coco Zickos photos

Seeing opportunity where others saw a crummy old building, Jimmy Wray created a shining new space for Kaua’i businesses and a school

Entrepreneur Jimmy Wray knows what it takes to give back to the community. He was the only person brave enough to purchase and renovate the former Kekaha Sugar Mill office and turn it into a vibrant location of service in the heart of the West-side town.

The decrepit building sat abandoned several years after the Kekaha Sugar Mill ceased operations. No one knew exactly what to do with the 1936 historic establishment and it was left to deteriorate.

Rather than allow it to continue on its path of neglect, Wray seized what he calls a business opportunity and a chance to provide for the community.

“Nobody would ever buy it because they couldn’t figure out what to do with it,” he says. “I felt like it had potential. And it was a pretty good bargain at the time.”

Perhaps it was a monetary steal, but there was no question it was a wreck.

“You couldn’t even walk around,” he says.

And by the time Wray had the floors replaced, ceilings and roof installed, as well as electricity and water established, he says with a chuckle, it wasn’t such a bargain after all.

Still, it was the community’s response and appreciation that motivated Wray to continue his endeavor and make use of the structure.

Even before the building was functional, Hawai’i Charter School Kula Aupuni Ni’ihau approached Wray regarding leasing space for a classroom. Prior to becoming tenants, students and teachers met at the beach.

As a token of their continued appreciation, students of the school sang a blessing during the opening of one of Wray’s latest business ventures, Ocean Jewelry, in Poipu.

Wray and his customers are, well, cleaning up

“I helped them and they’ve helped me a lot,” says Wray, who lives in Poipu with wife Linda and is the father of two Kauai business owners, Lisa Leggett and Joey Wray.

Now, the 9,000-square-foot building houses tenants that include The Laundromat, the only Laundromat in Kekaka since Hurricane Iniki devastated the Island in 1992.

“It’s a convenience for people,” he says.

Other tenants are Chris Faye, graphic designer; Ho’ola Lahui, which assists Hawaiian children in entering medical professions; Cold Tech 2000 air conditioning service; BASF seed company; and Mahea’s Place-hair salon.

What’s more, kama’aina are happy to “watch over” the 24-hour business for Wray when he’s not around, says the Texas native, who also owns a Laundromat in Waimea.

It did, however, take some time before he was accepted in the small town.

“They all wondered who I was and what was going on,” he says of the time when renovations were occurring.

Now, they stop to chat with him, sharing friendly conversation.

“I love the weather and the people,” Wray says about Kaua’i. “I can’t go anywhere without seeing someone I know.”

He also enjoys the old-Hawaii feel of Kekaha, which is why Wray devotes so much of his time to the largely undeveloped community.

“I’m from Texas, so I’m used to being hot and dry,” he says regarding his affinity for the West side.

One thing Wray admits, as a lifelong business owner and real estate investor, is that it takes a lot of work to do projects such as this.

“You’ve got to be dedicated to it – it doesn’t matter what it is,” says the Vietnam veteran.

And the most challenging aspect of owning enterprises is just being able to pay the bills. “It’s the price of living in paradise,” he says.

Yet, Wray says he will only retire when they throw dirt in his face.

“I’m happy with what I’m doing,” he says.

Especially when it comes to providing something for the kamaaina.

“Kekaha’s been good to me and hopefully I’ve done some good for Kekaha.”