Island residents’ hopes rest on billionaire owner

The 3,200 people living on a rural Hawaiian island that will soon be purchased by billionaire Oracle Corp chief executive Larry Ellison have a laundry list of what they’d like to see him provide.

Working-class residents on Lanai want stable jobs. Affordable housing. No onerous restrictions on hunting or fishing. A return to agriculture. Improved transportation to Maui, Oahu, and other islands given an airport with limited flights. Even simple things like the re-opening of the community pool. They hope he’ll be willing to sit down, listen to their concerns, and be sensitive to the unique culture of Hawaii.

But on Lanai, an island paradise unscathed by urban annoyances such as traffic lights, residents’ lives are largely dependent on whoever owns 98% of the island’s 365sq km. Without tourism, the economic engine that’s driven the island under its current billionaire owner, the “pineapple island” doesn’t have much.

“It’s not an island with a lot of resources and the kind of infrastructure you need,” said Bill Medeiros, assigned to oversee Lanai as executive assistant to the mayor of Maui County, of which Lanai is part. “At one time, almost the whole island was pineapple.”

Lanai residents are fully aware, says Medeiros, that their wants ultimately have little bearing on the reality of living on an island whose future rests with the whims of an owner with deep pockets willing to bear a financial loss.

That owner is soon to be Ellison, an adventurous billionaire who needs the island a lot less than the people of Lanai need him.

The fear is what happens if the owner doesn’t renew leases on rented homes, closes a hotel, or decides he’s had enough and sells, community leaders say.

“It’s always, ‘What happens if he sells us? How scary,” says Kepa Maly, executive director of the Lanai Culture & Heritage Centre.

It would be nice if Ellison, known for being a visionary, can find a way for Lanai to sustain itself in a way that honours its roots, says Maly. But he shouldn’t expect to turn a profit.

“The history of Lanai since Western contact is littered with the graves of unsuccessful Western business interests. I can’t believe someone buying the island today would be able to get richer off of it.”

Current billionaire owner David Murdock, who led a shift from the island’s pineapple industry to resort and home development, had been losing $20m (€16m) to $30m a year, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser has reported.

Ellison has yet to fully reveal his plans for Lanai but his representatives have assured the state senator who represents the island that the hi-tech CEO and world-renowned sailor has no plans for radical changes and will be sensitive to the culture of the island.

Still the reality, Maly notes, “is clearly someone has to earn some money. How do we do that?”

Ellison didn’t become the world’s sixth richest billionaire without some shrewd business sense.

“He told me once that he’s like anybody else when he spends his money on something, he doesn’t want to get taken,” says Mike Wilson, managing editor of the Tampa Bay Times and author of The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison: God Doesn’t Think He’s Larry Ellison.

But for a pet project like buying an island, “I’m sure his first concern is not that he’ll lose money. I don’t think he’s unconscious of the natural beauty of the place or anywhere else.”

The island’s charm means residents travel via $50-round trip ferry ride to neighbouring Maui to shop at big chain shops such as Wal-Mart. There may be only 50km of paved roads, but petrol on the island costs far more than it does compared to the US national average.

Residents supplement the food on their family’s table by fishing and hunting — mostly deer and some wild pig. There’s one school and one hospital. For more than routine medical care, residents must fly to Honolulu, a 25-minute plane ride.

Lanai’s small size has led to a tight-knit community, built as a walking community around Lanai City’s park, where residents strive for a simple life. “For an island that may have been host to many well-known people, it’s still an island that allows a lot of courtesy and privacy,” says seventh-generation Lanaian Sol Kahoohalahala.

As the sale gets closer to being complete, Maui mayor Alan Arakawa is pondering how Ellison might “completely alter the economic structure of the island”. Playing off Ellison’s hi-tech prowess, Maly has a novel idea: “Software development. How about Lanai becoming engaged in computer sciences?”

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