HONOLULU (AP) — The 3,200 people living on a rural Hawaiian island that will soon be purchased by billionaire Oracle Corp. CEO 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 reopening of the community pool. They hope he’s 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 like traffic lights, residents’ lives are largely dependent on whoever owns 98 percent of the island’s 141 square miles. 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, Medeiros said, 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 whole lot less than the people of Lanai need him.
The constant 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,’” said Kepa Maly, executive director of the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center.
It would be nice if Ellison, known for being a visionary, can find a way for Lanai to sustain itself in a way that honors its roots, Maly said. 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,” he said. “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 luxury resort and home development, had been losing $20 million to $30 million a year, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser previously 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 high-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 noted, “is clearly someone has to earn some money. How do we do that?”
And 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,” said Mike Wilson, managing editor of the Tampa Bay Times who authored, “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,” Wilson said. “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 neighboring Maui to shop at stores like Costco or Wal-Mart. There may be only 30 miles of paved roads, but a gallon of gasoline at the lone gas station on Friday was about $5.75, compared to Honolulu’s average of $4.20 and the U.S. national average of $3.45. 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 away.
Lanai’s small size has led to a tight-knight 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,” said seventh-generation Lanaian Sol Kahoohalahala.
As the sale gets closer to being a done deal, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa is pondering how Ellison might “completely alter the economic structure of the island.”
Playing off Ellison’s high-tech prowess Maly has a novel idea: “Software development. How about Lanai becoming engaged in computer sciences?”