It’s been a year and half since Lanai, the quietest island in the state, became the subject of a global media frenzy. But that’s what happens after getting bought by the fifth richest man in the world.
Larry Ellison, who founded Oracle, announced his plans to create a model of sustainable living to CNBC right before his keynote at the 2012 Oracle Openworld, and the Wall Street Journal jumped in to coin it Ellison’s “Fantasy Island.”
So far, Ellison seems to be doing his best to make it all a reality. About five months after his June 2012 purchase, Ellison’s Lanai Resort company lured island local Kurt Matsumoto away from his hotel exec job on Kauai to become the company’s Chief Operations Officer. By February 2013, Ellison had assembled the rest of the leadership team that included former Island Air treasurer Leslie Kaneshiro as VP of Finance, Kimberly Frank as VP of community development and Kepa Maly as VP of culture and historic preservation. Maly had been Executive Director of the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center.
“The cool thing about the new ownership is the desire to bring factual history,” says Maly, who was raised on Lanai and has spent a lifetime capturing ethnographies and chronicling the island.
Ellison’s goals for Lanai include more than gathering history. He also acquired Island Air a year ago, covering his air transportation bases. The airline now boasts five flights daily to Lanai, a new website and logo and two quarters of reported losses during its transition. In December 2013, Expedition’s Lanai Ferry applied to the state Public Utilities Commission to build a new 149-passenger boat. According to a Pacific Business News article from that time, the company intends to reinstate Ma‘alaea service to Lanai as well.
Ellison also says that he wants to create more jobs through diversified revenue sources, adding new industries, experimenting with exportable fruit crops, investments into alternative energy sources like solar, electric cars, conservation, preservation and higher education. But it was his first move–re-opening the community pool before summer, which had been closed for years by former owner David Murdock to save money–that really won many over many Lanai residents. Excited by the prospect of having a leader who could get things done, there was optimism in the air when I visited in Lanai in early 2013. Lobby renovations at the resorts were underway and employees were excited about updates.
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Now, Ellison’s game plan needs to start becoming a reality, and several projects have already begun. In fact, this weekend the Pulama Lanai group–the rebranded Lanai Resort company, aka Larry Ellison’s Lanai Dream team–will host a community meeting in Dole Park. Open to the public, the meeting will outline Ellison’s top priority projects for 2014.
Pulama Lanai keeps the public updated through its series of notices on its website at pulamalanai.com/news, but this Saturday’s meeting under the branches of the Cook Pines in Dole Park calls for community participation.
“The meeting is 9 to 11,” says Kimberly Frank, VP of Human Resources & Community Development. “It will be open to the whole community. Flyers have been posted around town. It’s part of our ongoing commitment to keep the community informed of all of the projects and initiatives that the company is undertaking. It’s also an opportunity to get feedback from the community on the various issues. So what will be presented by way of panel display boards is some of the projects that are underway currently or will be underway shortly for the beginning of 2014.”
Frank says they’ve already drilled test wells for desalination between Lanai City and Manele Bay. Pulama Lanai is also into their Phase IV of resort upgrades and lobby and room enhancements at the Manele Bay hotel. Frank also says research is underway on the aquaponics project, which plans to feed residents, though they haven’t yet chosen crops. Other items on the agenda include restoration projects and education.
“We have fish pond and Maunalei Valley restoration projects,” says Frank. “Maunalei Valley is accessible by driving in part of the way, but eventually we want to have a place where community and schools and visitors can come work on the land. We will also be able to announce on Saturday what is being offered for K-12 this summer. Our role is in supporting the school–we are not the school. We are supporting Elton Kinoshita, who is the Principal, in his visions and planning for the curriculum going forward.”
Kinoshita says that this year he’ll be able to offer a summer programs for grades K through 12, something the school hasn’t done in a while. He’s currently shoring up the programs but is looking to offer educational, cultural and physical education, with some agriculture, STEM, LEGO robotics, culinary, computer courses, field trips and, for upperclassmen, dual credit courses that offer high school and college credits simultaneously. Part of the plan involves students participating in the community-wide fish pond restoration project. He says he’ll be able to offer some of his teachers part-time work for the summer.
“Pulama Lanai told me they spent a lot of money last year,” says Kinoshita. “It was kind of a band-aid approach because it was very last minute. This year, we are doing all this coordination to make sure people aren’t stepping on each others’ toes. The main thing is that I want every student to have something enriching–not babysitting. Also, I would like my teachers to get involved to pick up on how to do some project based learning and start applying those things to their regular classes from seeing how it works during the summer.”
Maly, the vice president of Culture and Historic Preservation at Pulama Lanai, says one of his most exciting new projects is the IT Distance Learning Center at the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center (LCHC). The LCHC received a $1 million, three-year grant that will enable cutting edge curricula and allow Lanai a window of learning into the world. Maly has been recording the history of the island since the 1960s, and feels this connection to learning will help Lanai students find their place in the community and become the future stewards of the land.
As part of this work at capturing local history, Maly recently produced a film–that was directed by Kenneth K. Martinez-Burgmaier and titled Discovering Ancient Lanai–that will screen at this weekend’s fourth annual Lanai Film Festival. Maly says they recorded oral histories of the elders in Hawaii, some whom are now no longer with us.
“I was commissioned by the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center to document the history of Lanai,” says Martinez-Burgmaier. “It has been a journey of nearly five years, filming all over Lanai and interviewing the kupuna for hours at a time. Working with Kepa Maly, I had the chance to work with one of the top archeologists in the state of Hawaii and discover some of the ancient Hawaiian sites and secrets of Lanai. It turned out to be a beautiful film on some very interesting history.”
The film will play with several other, little-seen Hawaiian films at the Lodge at Koele. The Film Festival, which is produced by Martinez-Burgmaier, also features many local music artists from around the state and workshops on nose flutes, poi pounding, ‘ukulele and hula. The Lodge opens its doors to the public and the community is invited to all of these events, where are presented free of charge.
“The film festival brings exposure to many art forms,” says Maly. “From film to music to ancient arts. This coming weekend, Calvin Hoe is coming with his son to talk about how to make poi. We want to give our young people the knowledge to work with their hands. Sharing the histories of the plantation family and the Hawaiian ways, it is so important.”
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Maly says that the Kanaka Maoli inhabited Lanai later than the well-watered islands of Maui and Molokai. The archeology there only dates back 800 years or so, and legends tell of an island filled with ghosts before it was populated. Nevertheless, the kanaka maoli persevered on Lanai. Indeed, the pages of a missionary journal from 1828 tell of Hawaiians crossing the landscape, shifting seasonally up and down the valley.
With the extraordinary fuss over Lanai embarking on the era of Ellison, you might assume that having 98 percent of the island owned by just one rich dude was unusual. In fact, you could probably list Lanai’s majority landowners since the Great Mahele on one hand (see A BRIEF LANAI TIMELINE below).
Understanding history’s lessons and moving them forward into the future is always a challenge, but Lanai is a special place, even in Hawaii. It has no stoplights, no traffic jams and two luxurious resorts. In the 1990s, Lanai held the least amount of visitor traffic in the rest of the state (not counting Ni‘ihau) at less than one percent. That changed radically by the end of the decade, with Lanai beating out Molokai and branding itself as a luxury vacation destination with the mystery of seclusion.
Now Ellison wants more growth in that area. In fact, he has approval from the Lanai Community Plan Advisory Committee to build another resort at Kahalepalaoa landing–the old Club Lanai area. But this project isn’t on the community meeting agenda this time.
Of course, growth brings growing pains. A couple residents recently told me the island as a serious lack of affordable housing.
“The number one bugger about the changes is that they should’ve made housing a number one priority,” says island resident Judi Riley. “There is zero vacancy, so everybody who rents from private owners got a huge rent inflation. Places that were $700 are now $3,000-plus. Construction companies are renting and filling them with workers. It’s seriously irresponsible.”
Of course, with so many rooms rented, more money is flowing into the local economy and people are happy about that. But that in itself poses challenges. Burgmaier-Martinez apparently felt the squeeze at this year’s film festival. He says that housing the artists for the festival was more of a challenge this year with bed and breakfasts filling up fast.
To be fair, Ellison has said that he plans to double the population of Lanai, from 3,000 to 6,000, and housing all the residents is a part of the master plan with over 130 acres in proposed development. But housing issues aren’t on the agenda for this Saturday’s meeting.
In a Wall Street Journal story last year, Ellison painted his master plan for Lanai in pretty grand terms. “It’s surreal to think that I own this beautiful island,” Ellison said in the article. “It doesn’t feel like anyone can own Lanai. What it feels like to me is this really cool 21st-century engineering project, where I get to work with the people of Lanai to create a prosperous and sustainable Eden in the Pacific.”
A BRIEF LANAI TIMELINE
1500 Kanaka Maoli settle in the windward coast
1779 Capt. Cook perishes in Kealakekua Bay
1810 Kamehameha unites the Hawaiian Islands
1828 Missionary from Lahaina describes Kanaka life in Lana’i in his journal
1848 Kamehameha establishes land ownership system known as Great Mahele
1853-64 Mormon settle in Palawai
1870 Walter Gibson holds most fee simple interest besides the native kuleana land
1899-1901 Gibson’s daughter and son in law open Maunalei Sugar, it closes in 3 years
1902 Charles Gay owns most fee simple interest in Lana’i
1910-1950 Lana’i Ranch, George C. Munro was a ranch manager
1920 Gay plants pineapple as an experiment
1922 James Dole purchases Lana’i and establishes the world’s biggest pineapple plantation
1985 David H. Murdock purchases Castle and Cook.
1990 Lodge at Koele is built and opened by Castle and Cook.
1992 Last pineapple harvest, Murdock ushers in the Visitor Industry Era for Lana’i
2006 Murdock invests $100 million in renovation and rebranding of its resorts as Four Seasons Lana’i
2012 Transfer of Castle and Cook holdings to Ellison’s Lanai Island Holdings