HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A year after software billionaire Larry Ellison purchased the island of Lanai, Gov. Neil Abercrombie praised what he called Ellison's "very successful" first year as owner of the former Pineapple Island.
Ellison has sunk millions of dollars into Lanai's two aging resorts since he bought the island in June 2012. He told the Wall Street Journal newspaper the hotels' former décor was "dreadful" when he bought them. That's why he replaced Asian artwork and furniture with Hawaiian artwork.
Abercrombie likes what he sees so far.
"The positive outcome after a year, I think, is terrific. I think everybody's very optimistic about Lanai. People are moving to Lanai," Abercrombie said. "They (Ellison's company) have exercised, I think, an enormously positive sense of collaboration and discussion and dialogue."
Ellison is planning a third luxury hotel with up to 100 bungalows at Kahalepalaoa, on Lanai's eastern side, perhaps his most controversial proposal for the island's future.
The hotel will be composed of grass huts, will use solar electricity and make its own fresh water, Ellison told the Wall Street Journal. It will built on pristine land facing Maui and Molokai, raising concerns about construction on an undeveloped coastline.
Ellison's company also has told members of the Lanai community it would like to build 50 5-acre home lots near that new resort, something that has community activists concerned.
"If you have 50 people living in those homes, are you going to then need stores and what about the roads? What kind of infrastructure is going to be required? So it has the potential to make a massive change to what is now an untouched area," said Robin Kaye of the group Friends of Lanai.
Abercrombie said Ellison's managers have handled themselves and the community very well.
"I can't think of anything that I've been involved with in decades, of a magnitude of this nature, that has been more pleasant and productive and cooperative than the relationship that at least we in the state have had with Mr. Ellison and his people," Abercrombie told reporters in his office Monday.
Ellison's managers have told residents they plan to bring in as many as 300 construction workers over the next couple of years to Lanai. And that's another concern for activist Kaye.
"The last time this kind of thing happened was when they built the hotels and they built a tent city for the workers and there was a marked increase in drug abuse and a marked increase in domestic violence," Kaye said.
Kaye said senior management of Lanai Resorts are aware of that unpleasant part of Lanai's history and are working on ways to prevent that from happening again. But, Kaye said, "Nonetheless, it's a concern."
Kaye and other community leaders agree "There's such a better spirit on the island" under Ellison's ownership. Many Lanai residents felt previous owner David Murdock, another billionaire, didn't listen to them about their concerns on the island. Many Lanai residents still oppose Murdock's plan to build a wind farm on Lanai and have even purchased television spots against the project.
Lanai residents have praised Lanai Resorts Chief Operating Officer Kurt Matsumoto, who grew up on the island and worked for Murdock managing the resorts there for ten years. He has held numerous small and large meetings with residents and business people on the island, explaining Ellison's vision and listening to reaction from the community.
"People are working, people are coming back. Kurt has hired some very good people and overall I think it's a very positive feeling now," Kaye said.
Ellison told the Wall Street Journal that he plans to endow a sustainability laboratory that will help making the island "the first economically viable 100 percent-green community."
He told the newspaper Lanai has the right climate and soil to grow "the very best gourmet mangos and pineapples on the planet and export them year-round to Asia and North America."
"We have the ideal location for a couple of organic wineries on the island," Ellison told the Journal. "But the reintroduction of commercial agriculture to Lanai is 100 percent dependent upon increasing the available water on the island. So we're going to use solar energy to convert seawater to fresh water."