story by Tor Johnson
If the Waialua Sugar Mill looks like an abandoned, dilapidated old sugar mill, that’s because it is a dilapidated old sugar mill. But it’s no longer abandoned.
When Waialua Sugar Co. closed the doors of O‘ahu’s last working sugar mill in 1996, it was a blow to Waialua, the sleepy sister town of Hale‘iwa on the North Shore. Entire families of local Portuguese, Filipino, Chinese and Japanese sugar employees found themselves out of work. Local businesses closed, and schools saw a large drop in enrollment. The community was struggling.
Then something unexpected happened. Cottage industries sprang up in the old mill. In testament to the resilience of Hawai‘i’s people, there are now more than thirty businesses working out of the mill. Many of the new entrepreneurs churn out a product more palatable than sugar for the North Shore’s new generation: surfboards.
One of the first to open up shop was Eric Arakawa, a shaper who makes boards for top riders like three-time world champion Andy Irons. Eric, whose grandfather emigrated from Okinawa during the heyday of sugar, runs the Islands’ first computer-assisted design shaping room out of the mill’s old paint shop. Another mill pioneer is Jim Richardson. One of Hawai‘i’s top shapers in the ’70s, Jim builds patented Surflight boards. Their soft, pliable skins and carbon fiber cores are popular with big-wave riders for their performance and flexibility (and with beginners, who get fewer black eyes).
The Waialua Sugar Mill is no megamall—the streets are still unpaved—but it’s home to retail stores like Island X, an eclectic shop selling everything from locally produced gourmet Waialua coffee to imported Indonesian furniture, and the North Shore Soap Co., which makes natural, high-end soaps from kukui and macadamia nut oils.
Waialua will probably always be a sleepy little town, but its struggles could be ending. Businesses have gradually returned; school enrollment is on the rise. Stop by the mill on a Saturday morning after 8:30 to see what a revitalized town looks like; one of the best farmers’ markets on the island sets up here every weekend. You can buy nearly every kind of fruit and vegetable, grown locally by a co-op of ex-sugar mill employees. The one thing they don’t sell? Sugar cane. HH