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New Owner of Uncle Billy’s Hotel Shares Vision: ‘Our Plan is to Bring Downtown Kona Back’

By Tom Hasslinger
March 10, 2022, 6:00 PM HST
* Updated March 10, 4:35 PM
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The new owner of the Kona Bay Hotel has a vision for his recently purchased downtown landmark, and it looks a lot like the building’s glory days, only better.

Sandor Shapery, owner of Shapery Enterprises, said he plans to refurbish the former Uncle Billy’s hotel on Ali‘i Drive in the heart of Kailua-Kona with $25 million in improvements that will transform the deteriorating, vacant structure, but at the same time, retain its unique, old Hawai‘i feel.

“It’s going to be a big refresh on the property,” Shapery said. “Our plan is to bring downtown Kona back.”

Historic restoration projects are a specialty of the San Diego-based real estate development company and Shapery intends to refurbish, not rebuild, the iconic 122-bed hotel, “to bring back that old historical vibe.”

“My plan for that is to make it the nicest spot in downtown Kona,” Shapery said.

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While plans call for a retro feel, amenities will be modern. Tiki torches around the pool will look exactly like that, but they’ll be a newer low-voltage, environmentally friendly variety. Rooms will have synthetic wood floors and all the bathtubs will be replaced with showers. An ocean-facing rooftop bar is in the plans, as is a putting green facing the other way. Lava rock will be incorporated into the designs, as will bamboo.

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“There is a lot of detail, hand-stuff we want to do to make it a special place,” Shapery said. “I’m just trying to utilize all my restoration skills.”

Shapery has done similar restoration projects in California and Aspen, Colo., where he splits his time. For years he and his wife have lived parts of the year on the Big Island, but they’ve lived in Captain Cook full time for the last two years.

In fact, Shapery first inquired about purchasing the Kona Inn while out on a stroll on Ali‘i Drive. The Kona Inn couldn’t be sold due to title issues still in the process of being worked out, but the old hotel across the street was available.

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So Shapery snapped it up. Shapery Enterprises acquired the asset, situated on 2.06 acres, for $21 million back in January.

The real estate developer and attorney said he still would like to purchase the Kona Inn when it becomes available.

Tourists stroll by the closed Kona Bay Hotel on Thursday. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

“Absolutely,” Shapery said. “For how great Kona is, I want to do my share to bring downtown Kona back.”

The company, JLL, that marketed the property on behalf of the seller, a local family, said Shapery’s vision for the space played a big part in the process.

“It is a generational offering that is near and dear to the community, and we are excited to see the vision the buyer has for this property,” the seller’s representative, Wendell Brooks, said at the time of the deal.

Shapery said that because it will be a restoration project and not demolition and rebuild, the permitting process through Hawai‘i County has been smooth thus far. He’s aiming to have the hotel rebuilt in 18 months.

“That’s the timeline,” he said, adding, “that’s an aggressive timeline.”

He added that he intends to keep the hotel rates affordable, more in line for the “blue-collar” guest as opposed to a high-end resort more befitting the Kohala Coast. To help do that, Shapery said he’s looking to partner with a national hotel brand that will allow travelers to use hotel reward points.

Design plans are still in the works. Once they’re finished, the new owner intends to host an open house for the community to come see them and offer feedback.

“We want to make sure we have the community on board,” he said.

Neighbors of the property said they’re excited for what’s in store.

Michael Heidt’s business, Friendly Activities, sits across Ali‘i Drive from the hotel. He said the reopened business will bring more foot traffic and customers for shops like his, which is needed in downtown Kona, especially since the pandemic hit so many businesses down there, so hard. 

“It’s great,” Heidt said when he learned what’s planned for the space. “I haven’t heard anything that is negative.”

Shapery added that he’s looking to buy an acre of land within a mile of the hotel so he can begin to build affordable housing there. Affordable housing is key to getting and retaining quality employees.

Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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