Three and a half years after billionaire Larry Ellison bought the island of Lanai, the re-opening of the island’s flagship oceanside resort has been delayed and it's going to cost a lot more for visitors to stay there once it reopens early next year.
Small restaurants and shops on the island have suffered since the hotel formerly called the Manele Bay resort temporarily closed June 1 for a major upgrade at the beginning of the summer.
The Four Seasons Resort Lanai is undergoing about $75 million in upgrades, renovating all rooms and suites, the pool, spa, restaurants and all public areas.
Originally supposed to re-open in early December, the resort will now begin gradually reopening on February 1, in what officials from Pulama Lanai, Ellison’s company that runs the island, call a “soft opening.”
"Right now it's going through a total transformation. The rooms that I've seen, the public areas that I've seen are spectacular," said Alberta DeJetley, a farmer and publisher of Lanai Today, the island’s monthly newspaper.
The average rooms at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai started at $550 a night earlier this year, but after the big makeover, the cheapest rooms will cost about 75 percent more, starting at $960 a night.
Ocean-front rooms will cost $1,300 per day and larger suites will have a daily rate of $3,700 and up, according to the Four Seasons website.
Hawaii residents will get a 30 percent discount off the best available rates, a Four Seasons spokeswoman said.
The Lodge At Koele remains closed to the public and is used as a dormitory for hundreds of construction workers. The lodge’s long-term future has not been decided, a Pulama Lanai spokeswoman said.
With both hotels shut down, there have been a lot of empty seats at local restaurants, such as the Lanai City Ohana Poke Market.
"It really has been a struggle for us. Our sales have decreased maybe about 50 percent, between 50 and 60 percent," said Uilani Stokes, whose family runs the poke establishment that was rated the number one restaurant on the island for several years running, according to the Trip Advisor website.
At Pele's Other Garden deli and bistro, business has fallen by more than 60 percent since June.
"When we went, 'Wow, there is no lunch business, what are we going to do?'" said the restaurant’s o-owner Barbara Lucas, who is also treasurer of the Lanai Chamber of Commerce.
But Larry Ellison's company Pulama Lanai has eased the burden for some.
"Pulama has assisted a lot of the small businesses with rent reductions and that has helped. As a business owner, you have to start, then, tightening that belt," Lucas said.
Pulama has also hired eight restaurants to provide 60 lunches every other Friday to construction workers and hotel employees, Lucas said.
Four restaurants are paid $12 each for 240 meals while four other restaurants handle the same order on alternating Fridays, in a program Pulama started after struggling restaurants asked for relief.
In the last few months, a hair salon closed down along with a juice shop and chiropractor's office, Lanai residents said.
The 11-room Hotel Lanai, also owned by Pulama Lanai, and a handful of bed and breakfasts and short-term rentals have offered only a few spots for overnight visitors during the resort closures. Small numbers of day-trippers have traveled to Lanai from Maui or Oahu, business owners said, but without both major resorts open, the Lanai City commercial area is nearly empty during the workday.
Business falls off further on weekends, when many construction workers travel home to other islands to be with their families, merchants said.
In an unprecedented move, the resorts have kept all 650 employees on the payroll while renovations are underway and temporarily re-assigned many of them to other jobs in the community.
Luzviminda Cheverette was a food and beverage server at the Koele lodge but now she and about 85 other resort employees are working as teachers' aides at Lanai School.
"I think it's really great because you feel like you belong to the community and you give a lot of help," Cheverette said.
Resort workers have also helped dozens of clients of the Lanai Senior Center, washing their cars and cleaning their yards.
"To actually have somebody come and do that for them and clean it up and cut their bushes. It makes a big difference when you're 80 and 90 years old," said Maggie Masicampo, who runs the Lanai Senior Center for the Maui County Department of Housing and Human Concerns.
Other hotel employees have worked on conservation and cultural projects, such as restoring a fishpond.
About 100 hotel employees have taken temporary assignments at other Four Seasons resorts around the world and some have remained at Koele and Manele to maintain the Lanai properties, a Pulama spokeswoman said.
While the resort employees are grateful to remain employed during renovations, many of their hours have been reduced and some have seen pay cuts of up to 50 percent, because they have no more tip income without any hotel guests.
Social worker and Lanai Planning Commission Chair Kelli Gima said resort employees are hopeful but cautious.
"What's really going to change? When is the hotel really going to open? When are we going to get back to work?" Gima listed as several key concerns of hotel workers.
Gima said there is a lot of uncertainty among residents who already survived the transition from pineapple cultivation to a resort-based economy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now they are concerned about how they will weather this next transition to an even higher-end resort.
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