HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - This is a transcript of a brief interview Hawaii News Now conducted with Kurt Matsumoto, the chief operating officer of Lanai Resorts, billionaire Larry Ellison's company that now owns about 98 percent of Lanai. Matsumoto, a Lanai native, previously headed resorts and administration on Lanai under previous owner David Murdoch from 1991 to 2000. He began work in his new post on Dec. 1, 2012.
Hawaii News Now: Your proposal for a new resort in the old Club Lanai area has some people on the island concerned about development on a pristine part of the island.
Matsumoto: We will take all the concerns into consideration as we decide how to move forward. We do want to have a lot of respect for the land and the significance of it. And so those things, we want to do the right thing. And I can't stand in front of them today and say, 'This is what we're going to do. This is exactly how it's going to turn out.' I don't really know. But we do believe that it will be economic addition to what already is in place. We've had 20 years to see the existing model. It's not working and I think it's our responsibility to try to do something to try to improve that.
Hawaii News Now: What about the plans for more housing? Because that's part of the problem for average folks who can't afford to live at those luxury developments in Koele and Manele.
Matsumoto: We have as one of the primary planks to increase the amount of housing on the island. And we want to explore not only expanding the city but we want to see if there are some alternative locations so that people have an option on Lanai. Instead of just having to choose one location, maybe we can offer some place that has an ocean view, a warmer climate and that way people can have some choices. Cost is always an issue. So we have to examine how we can make that feasible. But we are going to do a lot of work to try to make those things possible. But one of my immediate assignments is to explore expanding, how the expansion will look. One of the things that I want to explore with the planning department and with the community is instead of the new neighborhoods going with the new company standard. Repeat the existing plantation style. The narrower streets, no sidewalks, no gutters and be more in keeping with the original part of the town. That should help us lower the cost of home ownership. We're just trying to explore creative ideas to make more homes available, make them as affordable as possible, and try to make home ownership more viable. And we will also create more product for rent. Because we understand there will have to be a mix, and assortment of things. Houses for sale. Houses for rent. Houses for transient use. We need to anticipate rather than follow. Right now, we're behind the curve and we need to get in front of the curve.
Hawaii News Now: You've talked about the need for population growth on Lanai. Is there a magic number now that you are looking at? The population is about 3,000. Are you comfortable with growing to a certain number?
Matsumoto: The (Maui) Planning Department brought up that some economic experts have pegged a comfortable number for a community to be viable is like 5,000, 6,000 or 7,000. So I think we'd be comfortable trying to look at that as a target. And maybe that's the carrying capacity for the island. One of the things that we'd like to see is the charm, the nature of the island be maintained, so growth, but not at the expense of losing the character of the island.
Hawaii News Now: What about infrastructure? Everywhere we look, the aging electric plant, the water system, and other facilities need upgrades.
Matsumoto: That's one of the big initiatives that we intend to have an impact. Again, there's no real plan but I've already reached out to all the players and said if we do certain things, are you open to these ideas? So when it does come time to come to the table and make some things happen, I think we will have a very collaborative effort. Not just us and the community, but we will bring in all the affected parties.
Hawaii News Now: There was a request to demolish those three old plantation homes in Lanai City. And the State Historic Preservation Division came out against it. Today we saw an architect taking some measurements outside those homes. What's the latest?
Matsumoto: That was a communication issue. I think that the intent wasn't properly expressed about what we would do. So recently I was able to meet with the planning department. When the demolition request went in, I wasn't on board yet. Now I understand the issues and I understand the significance of the houses. I know the families that used to live there. I spent time at those houses. I learned to putter on my Dad's jeep because Mr. Okamoto was the mechanic on the island. So I understand the significance of it and we're going to work to make sure that the homes either get rebuilt or recreated so that it continues to be part of the community there.
Hawaii News Now: Would they be a museum or how would that work?
Matsumoto: We talked about how there still needs to be residences on Lanai. There's still a lot of pressure in the island for more residences. So we talked about applying for a variance because the zoning changed. It was well-intentioned, but there were some unintended circumstances that arise out of the change so in an effort to do preservation, it became a business-country town zone. So the use has changed. So now if we use it as a residence, it's going to be a non-conforming use. So we are going to go in and we're going to ask for the variance. And we will have a recreated structure, it will be a residence once again, it will be used in a traditional manner, so I think that will satisfy everybody's concerns. It will fill everybody's needs.
Hawaii News Now: So you have abandoned the plans to demolish them completely.
Matsumoto: It may be the best course of action if we determine that the buildings are just beyond salvaging. So I've agreed to talk to contractors who have experience with that type of restoration work who have been successful and to bring them to Lanai to help us examine what the possibility is. If it can be restored, we will restore it. If they say 'No, it's too far gone," we will demolish it but we will rebuild it to look exactly the way it does today.