Changes evident on Lanai after Ellison purchase

Published: Feb. 13, 2013 at 7:49 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 14, 2013 at 3:51 AM HST
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Numerous changes have happened on Lanai since software billionaire Larry Ellison bought the island in June and many more are under way as Ellison's company tries to address the shortage of housing there and make other improvements.

Last August, Maui County closed the Lanai Gym to install a new floor in the aging facility. County and state projects such as this usually take much longer than those in the private sector, which doesn't have to go through the lengthy government appropriation and procurement process.

For instance, just two months after Ellison bought the island, construction crews hired by his Lanai Resorts company had re-opened and completely refurbished the community pool that now looks like something out of a resort. The island's previous owner, David Murdoch, closed the pool several years ago in a move to save money.

Makana Lopez previously drove a shuttle for the resorts and he was hired as one of two lifeguards at the pool.

"Everybody loves it.  A lot of the kids love it.  A lot of the senior citizens who have a hard time, they just jump right in like they're young again. And so, it's fun," said Lopez, 23, a Lanai native. "I look forward to coming to work every morning.  And just seeing how much this pool has improved since I was little.  I remember coming and it looked nothing like the pool does now.  It looks like an island club resort pool, you know?"

Just a few weeks ago, Lanai Resorts installed a heater to keep water temperatures in the 83-degree range, making the pool more inviting during the winter when daytime temperatures can be in the mid to upper 60s.

In the last eight months, the resort company also built new basketball and volleyball courts right next to the pool.

A new playground equipment project is near completion.

"I think it was a real positive thing because the kids had nothing to do.  The theater was shut down.  The pool was shut down," said Stephen "Fergie" Ferguson, a Pop Warner football coach who owns a Lanai restaurant.

Ferguson said excited about the company's plans to build a football field surrounded by a track on what has been a soccer field.

There's a major housing crunch on the island, with a shortage of affordable rentals and homes for sale. So Ellison's company is building three new homes and looking at larger-scale developments.

To lower housing costs, the company may ask Maui County for permission to build "plantation style" neighborhoods.

"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," said Kurt Matsumoto, chief operating officer of Lanai Resorts. "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."

The company owned by the previous owner, Murdoch, applied for demolition permits to tear down three vacant homes in Lanai City.

But the State Historic Preservation Division determined that the houses were historically significant, since they were built in the 1920s as plantation homes for pineapple workers, and opposed their destruction.

Matsumoto, who was hired Dec. 1, grew up on the island and remembers hanging out at one of the homes, which are now fenced off.

"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," Matsumoto told Hawaii News Now.

"This is what Murdoch did when he first came here.  Pumped in a lot of money, made a lot of changes," said Butch Gima, president of the group Lanaians for Sensible Growth.  "So there are those who were here when Murdoch first started saying 'OK, we'll give Ellison some time first.'  And I'm a bit more optimistic that Ellison's going to do it the right way, because he brought Kurt on board."

Ellison also wants to expand opportunities for farmers who pay the highest water rates in the state. People like Alberta deJetley, who runs the island's largest produce farm, an 18-acre parcel that produces fruits and vegetables which are sold to private clients, hotels and supermarkets on Lanai.

"To have all these new jobs, new opportunities.  It's very, very interesting to see how this island will evolve over the next twenty years under Mr. Ellison," said deJetley, who is the publisher of the island's monthly newspaper.

Lanai's new bustling economy is evident far from its resorts and fancy restaurants.

Last Thursday morning, a crew from a Jim Falk Motors of Maui, a Kahului car dealership, loaded up gear after getting off the ferry from Maui.

Before Ellison bought the island, the dealership brought in about three mechanics to Lanai each month for auto repairs and maintenance, according to Manny Nunez, the service manager of the dealership.  But because more people have bought cars and moved to Lanai in the last few months, last week the company brought nine mechanics over on the ferry, triple the people transported from Maui for auto work, he said.

"He's (Ellison) expanding, which is good.  The economy's doing better here. People are buying cars from us and we service everything that we sell, so I think the future's going to be really good for us," Nunez said.

A full 21 years after the last pineapple harvest, Lanai's landscape is still dotted with pieces of irrigation tubing and small black plastic remnants of material that was used to keep weeds out and moisture in.

And the only place where pineapple still grows is in a display outside the former Dole headquarters, now home to the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center.

It is a small remembrance for the crop that once made the island the biggest pineapple plantation in the world. 

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