Lanai is booming under Ellison; may double in population

Lanai is booming under Ellison; may double in population
© Wikimedia Commons
© Wikimedia Commons

Eight months after billionaire Larry Ellison purchased the tiny island of Lanai, residents there said they are "cautiously optimistic" about its future as representatives of the new owner said the island may need to double in population.

"A lot of people are going back to work and people seem to have a lot less stress in their lives," said Diane Preza, a kindergarten teacher at Lanai's only public school, which offers classes from kindergarten to 12th grade. "It just seems the community has come alive.  And people feel like there's hope, I think."

It's easy to understand the improvement of the economy on Lanai when you watch the arrival at Manele Small Boat Harbor of one of five daily ferry round trips from Maui.

The boat is packed with more than 100 people, including tourists bringing their golf clubs on day trips and lots of construction workers and other trades people.

Electrician Kevin McNamara said business at Sturdevant electrical contractor on Lanai has increased 300-percent since Ellison – the third richest man in the United States -- bought the island in June and began lots of upgrades.

McNamara was waiting by the ferry dock to pick up two electricians arriving from Maui, who travel by boat daily to handle the extra work.

"The amazing thing is we have to send the workers home every night because there's no longer housing.  When he first bought the island, they would spend the night, spend the week," McNamara said.

From a distance, it's difficult to see many changes at the island's two resorts, the Lodge at Koele and Manele Bay hotel.

But inside, the Lanai Resorts company has made major upgrades to the lobbies and common areas of both hotels.

Hawaiian plants, flowers and artwork aimed at emphasizing Lanais natural beauty have replaced generic-looking pieces of Asian resort art.

At Manele, a new restaurant, Nobu Lanai, has opened, hiring a staff of more than 30 and offering Japanese cuisine featuring local produce and seafood.

Smaller mom-and-pop operations such as Canoe's Restaurant in Lanai City report a 20-percent increase in business since Ellison bought the island in June and begin hiring for more than 100 new jobs.

"So immediately we saw they were working more now, and they had less time to cook and so more people starting coming out to eat almost the very next week after he took over," said Stephen Ferguson, owner of Canoes.

Ellison's Lanai Resorts company has also made numerous upgrades to community facilities, like re-furbishing and re-opening the community pool, which now looks like something out of a resort.

"When Larry Ellison bought the island, it was a big relief off of our shoulders.  He opened up, like I said, opportunities and jobs for us. As we were kind of on the downfall, struggling to find jobs and stuff," said Makana Lopez, 23, a lifeguard at the pool which re-opened in August 2012, after being closed for several years.

Community activists credit Kurt Matsumoto, the chief operating officer of Lanai Resorts who's been on the job since Dec. 1, with changing the relationship with the community that had grown contentious and distrustful of the previous owner, another billionaire, David Murdoch.

Butch Gima, president of the community group Lanaians for Sensible Growth, said, "He (Matsumoto) has done more in terms of developing and establishing new relationships than Castle and Cooke has done in the last 22 years."

A Lanai native, Matsumoto has been meeting with some of Lanai's 3,100 residents in small groups to talk about his company's plans and get their reaction to them.

"We'll do any kind of efforts so that communication is alive ongoing and it's moving two ways, not just one way," he told a Lanai community planning meeting last Wednesday night.

Right now, Matsumoto said Lanai's small businesses struggle to make ends meet based on the current population and tourism traffic.  So he said the island's population must grow, perhaps doubling to around 6,000.

"The economic model has to get growth involved.  Otherwise, you will become stagnant and you have too many threats then, to deal with, that you cannot overcome," Matsumoto said.

"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," Matsumoto added.

"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," Matsumoto said in an interview with Hawaii News Now.

Some residents are worried that Lanai does not grow too much and have concerns about plans for a new resort on the windward side of the island.

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