Larry Ellison, the supreme landowner of the island of Lanai, has been getting a lot of very positive press these days throughout Hawaii, including from us. But I couldn’t help but smile at the pushback he got last week in Honolulu Civil Beat from one Lanai resident who can’t quite bring herself to kiss her overlord’s ring.
See, Lanai may be one of the smallest inhabited islands in Hawaii, but it’s (mostly) owned by one of the biggest names in the world. Ellison, the founder of Oracle, is worth about $41 billion according to Forbes, making him the third richest American. This is wealth he’s long transformed into real power. In fact, on Sunday, Feb. 16, his 249-acre resort in Rancho Mirage, California hosted President Barack Obama, according to an Associated Press story published the following day.
In the summer of 2012, Ellison purchased 98 percent of Lanai. As Wailuku attorney Ben Lowenthal pointed out in a July 2013 edition of his State of Aloha column that runs in The Maui News, Ellison is merely the latest in a long line land barons who’ve lorded over Lanai since the 19th century. First there was Walter Murray Gibson. Then there was Charles Gay. The Dole Pineapple Company followed after Gay. After that, it was Castle & Cooke CEO David Murdock.
Not long after the sale to Ellison went through, many people around Hawaii wondered what Lanai’s residents actually thought of their new island overlord. Initial reports, like the Aug. 2013 Honolulu Magazine story “An Inside Look at Larry Ellison’s Lanai,” were mostly positive. “The talk he’s talking is giving a lot of people hope—a lot of people think he’s the new messiah,” said Lanai small business owner Andrew de la Cruz in the story. “It’s not Ellison’s ideas that are giving people hope, it’s the way he’s involving the community,” added community activist Butch Gima.
Perhaps publicity like that emboldened Ellison to take on near-feudal airs when he started talking up “his” island at a big Oracle event in Las Vegas earlier this month. According to a Feb. 6 story in Business Insider, Ellison even used the word “laboratory” to describe his vision for the island:
“We think we can demonstrate that green energy can be economical,” Ellison said according to the story. “We’re going to use our solar power, our wind power grid to convert sea water to fresh water… desalination. We think we can do that in a very effective way and use that fresh water to bring back commercial agriculture.”
Ellison reportedly said that he loves Lanai because “the weather is always fabulous” and “always 82 degrees and sunny.” Business Insider reported that he said “We’re empowering the locals to start their own businesses” and that he’s “providing them with the appropriate mentoring and help.” His reason for all this generosity? “We think if we do a good job of taking care of the locals, the locals will do a good job of taking care of our visitors,” Business Insider quoted him as saying.
For Lanai resident Sally Kaye, this was just too much, and she took to Civil Beat to air her grievances against both the Business Insider piece and Ellison in general.
“First, you didn’t really ‘buy’ the Hawaiian island of Lanai. You bought the membership interests in Castle & Cooke Resorts, LLC (C&C), which means you not only avoided paying any conveyance tax to the State of Hawaii, but you most definitely did not purchase state and county roads, hospitals, local churches, nor the close to 1,000 private properties the rest of us own here on Lanai,” Kaye wrote in the Feb. 11 story titled “A Lanai ‘Lab Rat’ Responds To Larry Ellison.”
Kaye also found Ellison’s reasoning that he needs to be nice to the “locals” so they’ll be nice to tourists insulting. “You told Business Insider that if you ‘do a good job taking care of the locals, the locals will do a good job of taking care of our visitors,’” Kaye wrote. “Leaving aside for a moment how you might define ‘local,’ we like to think we have always taken good care of our visitors, regardless of whether they visit a resident’s ‘ohana, camp out at Manele, book a room at the fab (and very affordable) Hotel Lanai, or stay at the Four Seasons. Pride in work product is, well, kind of what has made Lanai, Lanai for all these decades, and why so many of our visitors return again and again.”
But mostly, Kaye was pissed at Ellison’s nonchalant embrace of covering the island with windmills. “Most distressing, though, is the Business Insider’s statement that you have invested in “everything from wind farms to local businesses.” I can’t speak to the local business comment, although the ubiquitous landscaping we see all over town probably qualifies as an investment. But really, Larry. Wind Farms? Where? Surely not here on Lanai!”
In many ways, Ellison is a departure from the previous Lanai barons. But as Kaye is apparently discovering, he still looks upon the island as just another of his possessions.
Photo: Oracle PR/Wikimedia Commons