The new owners of the island of Lanai said the population of the small island might have to double to promote growth as longtime residents expressed concern over initial plans to build a third resort.
Since billionaire Larry Ellison bought Lanai in June, his company Lanai Resorts has spent millions of dollars upgrading the island's two resorts, fixing up public facilities and building new rental housing.
The most controversial of Lanai Resort's plans is to build a third hotel on the undeveloped Windward side of the island.
The hotel would include 100 bungalows at Kahalepalaoa (which means "the whale ivory house" in Hawaiian), also known as Club Lanai, on the Eastern shore. It's the site of a pier from the former Maunalei Sugar Company.
Longtime residents, like schoolteacher Diane Preza whose grandmother was born in the area, are concerned about the idea of a resort there.
"A lot of people use it recreationally for fishing or just to go holo holo. And I think there is some controversy because it's more development," said Preza, who was born and raised on the island. She is a member of the group Kupaa No Lanai, one of the organizations formed to fight wind farm development on Lanai.
Pat Reilly, who has lived on the island for 35 years and is a retired school counselor, said, "It gets flooded regularly. If there's a hurricane, if there's a tsunami, if there's a real heavy Kona rain for three or four days, those roads are closed. I don't care what road you build down there. It's gone."
The Eastern side of the island features beautiful views of Maui to the right and Molokai to the left, but it's only accessible by an unpaved, dirt road. Development there would require building a road, as well as installing other key infrastructure like water, sewer and power service.
"Once you pave a road, traffic and crowds and things change. So I think people are worried, you know, along those lines," said Stephen Ferguson, who arrived on Lanai in 1994 as a carpenter but now owns a restaurant called Canoes in Lanai City. "The locals like the seclusion down there. They can go camping for the weekend and not be bothered. But where the hotel is going to be is smack in the middle of that seclusion."
Lanai Resort's Chief Operating Officer Kurt Matsumoto said his company will listen to residents' concerns and any development will be done with respect for the land. He's been meeting with small groups of Lanai residents since he took the job Dec. 1, 2012.
"We'll do any kind of efforts so that communication is alive ongoing and it's moving two ways, not just one way," Matsumoto told a community meeting on Lanai last Wednesday. "We do want to have a lot of respect for the land and the significance of it."
Matsumoto – a native of the island -- said Lanai's population of 3,100 people may need to double to around 6,000 so that business can grow.
But some residents are leery of population growth on an island with just one gas station, one fire station, one police station and one public school, kindergarten through 12th grade and no stop lights.
"So the challenge is to balance whatever growth we do with keeping the culture and the spirit and the absence of pace that makes this such a unique place," said Robin Kaye, a spokesman for the group Friends of Lanai. He has lived on Lanai on and off since 1974.
"But I think people are going to come and after six months they're going to say, 'Geez, where's my Costco, where's my Walmart, where's my McDonalds," Kaye said.
Ferguson, the restaurant owner, summed up the situation and said, "People still kind of want to preserve the island the way it is. And I think that's what's on everybody's minds. But there's also an economy you gotta worry about and how you gonna sustain that?"
Ellison's Lanai Resorts is working with the state to build a second runway at the Lanai airport and is reportedly in discussions to invest in Island Air, the airline which serves Lanai with five daily round trips.
Ellison's company has had initial discussions with operators of the ferry to Maui about the possibility of buying that service, sources said.
Lanai Resorts also wants to build a water desalination plant in Manele, to boost capacity of the island's old water system. The sunny and dry Manele side of the island consumes more than two-thirds of the island's daily water to keep its resort, golf course and parks green.
Ellison has bought a luxury home in Manele to live in when he visits, sources said. It's a complex formerly owned by comedian George Lopez. In October, the resort company purchased the property overlooking the Manele resort, golf course and scenic Hulopoe Bay for $4.1 million, according to Maui County property tax records.
Even with all the changes, there are many examples that Lanai is retaining its old charm. Motorists still wave as they pass each other on the road.
And then there was Aunty Irene. That's 95-year-old Irene Perry who a reporter met leaving Lanai's only hospital -- strumming her ukulele -- after playing Hawaiian music with other volunteers for patients last Wednesday. She's thrilled about all the changes coming to her native island.
"Maybe make it a little more exciting. It's kind of dead over here," Perry said with a laugh. Asked what she thought about the possibility of a new resort, the retired cook and housekeeper said, "I think it's good. Because then we will have more things that we can enjoy."
Then she sang a song while accompanying herself on the ukulele in tribute to the island, called "Hanohano Lanai," meaning distinguished is Lanai.
Tune in to Hawaii News Now Wednesday at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. for more stories from Lanai.