LANAI CITY - So far, Lanai residents give billionaire Larry Ellison a thumbs up for the improvements and changes he has brought to the island since buying the vast majority of it a year ago.
Residents expressed their appreciation for the efforts of one of America's richest men, who has reopened a long-closed community pool, built a new playground and basketball court, spruced up buildings around town and provided more jobs for residents - meaning more money for them and the island.
But amid their gratitude, there is a looming uncertainty about the future of their island community and the impacts of the software guru's plans. Those plans include a new, third resort, a desalination plant, a new airport runway and additional housing on an island that about 3,000 people call home.
Diane Preza, who was born and raised on Lanai, said she is appreciative of what new Lanai owner Larry Ellison has done so far for the community, such as reopening the community pool and building a new playground. But as she picked flowers from her yard in Lanai City, she admitted having “mixed feelings” about Ellison’s future plans.
The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo
Medical assistant Janice Mamaclay (center) said she is pleased with what Larry Ellison and his company have done for the island, such as building the covered shelter she is sitting under with friend Ramon Ramirez (left) and her father, Aniceto Valorozo. The three were sitting on a new picnic bench in Dole Park in the heart of Lanai City.
The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo
Reynold “Butch” Gima
"It seems like he's cleaning things up," said resident and teacher Diane Preza. "There are more cars at the grocery store."
"Personally, I still have mixed feelings about the (future plans)," she said while picking flowers in her yard in Lanai City earlier this month.
Preza, who was born and raised on Lanai, is worried about how the influx of new workers to the island could negatively affect the community, noting that when resorts were built in the past the new faces who came to town were accompanied by money, drugs and other social ills.
"I'm really worried about that," she said.
Preza also is "undecided" about how she feels about the new proposed Kahalepalaoa Village Retreat Resort at the old Club Lanai site on the island's isolated windward shoreline. Plans call for 100 hale units, a beach club and 50 residential rural estates while also preserving the windward shoreline's open space and wilderness, according to Ellison's company, the newly named Pulama Lana'i.
"I don't want it to be another Kaanapali," Preza said referring to the West Maui area lined with hotels.
"This island is special because of its raw beauty. When you make things accessible it detracts from all of that," Preza said.
Medical assistant Janice Mamaclay, too, has mixed feelings about the new ownership.
As she sat in Dole Park in the heart of the town, Mamaclay said that "before we didn't have this," pointing to the overhead shelter over a new picnic table where she was taking a lunch break with her father and a friend. Ellison has added the shelter and new picnic tables and spruced up parts of the park.
So far, Ellison's purchase of the island has been "good for people," said the seven-year Lanai resident, who moved from the Philippines.
"More business coming in, jobs," Mamaclay said.
Her support for the improvements came with a caveat.
While more people moving to the island may not be a bad thing, especially for business, she didn't want the population growth to overwhelm the infrastructure of the tiny island, as well as impact the island's character.
"At least the culture needs to be preserved," Mamaclay said.
It's been a little more than a year since Ellison, Oracle Corp.'s chief executive officer, bought 98 percent of the island from another billionaire, David Murdock, whose privately held Castle & Cooke Inc. sold more than 88,000 acres on Lanai.
The deal in June 2012, valued reportedly at "hundreds of millions of dollars," included the island's two luxury hotels - the Four Seasons Resort Lana'i at Manele Bay and the Four Seasons Resort Lana'i, The Lodge at Koele - two championship golf courses and other assets. Murdock had controlled those Lanai assets since 1985.
Since the sale, Ellison has said through his company officials and personally to Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa that his vision for the island is for it to be self-sustainable, powered by solar energy, and supportive of organic farming.
Since the sale, residents such as Richard Doolin, who works at Lanai City Service & Dollar Rent A Car, a combination of businesses including the island's only gas station, have been waiting to see what Ellison's plans are.
"Everyone was just waiting to see what he going do," said Doolin, a 15-year resident of Lanai.
What has happened is that "people that wasn't working is working again," he said.
Doolin said that he's heard "plenty rumors" of what could happen next but isn't concerned.
"Always can adapt," he said after having lunch at the Blue Ginger Cafe.
He did warn that with the possible influx of new people there will be "some good, some bad," and that the growth could tax the tight housing situation. He expects housing to become even more scarce and for prices to climb if the population grows.
Larry Boldosser, who retired to the island two years ago, said that prior to Ellison's purchase, residents were saying:
'' 'We need more work. We need more industry.' '' People were leaving the island because of the lack of work, said the former Oregon resident and construction manager, who lives in the Manele area.
But soon after Ellison's purchase last year, "things started to pop," he recalled.
"Within a few months people were saying, 'We're working too much,' '' Boldosser said before boarding the Expeditions ferry from Lahaina to Lanai recently.
Besides increasing employment, the company worked to improve the beauty of the town, starting with its own headquarters.
"Central (company headquarters) is a thousand times nicer," he said, referring to its new roof and parking.
"It's just exciting for everybody," Boldosser said.
When Murdock was in control, he let things fall to the wayside, and "it just looked ratty," Boldosser said of the town. "He basically let it stop and let it rust. It's just fresh and nice looking now."
The present is fine but, like other residents, Boldosser has taken a wait-and-see approach to the future of the island.
"It's not going to happen for 30 years," he said of the building out of Ellison's vision.
Ellison's not waiting though. The new island owner is "not fooling around. He's moving ahead," Boldosser said, adding that Ellison is not doing it alone and appears willing to work with the locals.
Reynold "Butch" Gima, who was born and raised on the island and is a community activist, agreed that Ellison has brought change and fixed things that Murdock had neglected. He said there is a deep contrast between the management styles of the two men and offered up some positives of the new owner.
He applauded Ellison's selection of former Lanai resident Kurt Matsumoto as his chief operating officer for Pulama Lana'i. Gima said, the group Lanaians for Sensible Growth was started by several other Lanai residents in the mid-1980s. Matsumoto "understands how the community operates" and that the company is not micromanaged as it was under Murdock and Castle & Cooke.
Overall, Gima said, he likes parts of Ellison's vision.
"I like his philosophy of becoming a self-sustaining island, and he's brought in and hired/contracted several nationally renowned experts in different disciplines to help them accomplish this," Gima wrote in an email. "The capital he had brought to Lanai . . . has been obviously well received. There is hope on the island; the despair and depression have lifted for now."
But like many other residents, Gima said that there is concern about the socioeconomic impacts that may be on the horizon, as he reflected back to the 1980s and '90s when the resorts were being built and new people came to the island.
"To their credit, Pulama Lana'i is working on mitigating some of these impacts by collaborating with community organizations, instituting measures learned from the mistakes of Castle & Cooke and doing their best to communicate with the community on the upcoming changes," said Gima, a social worker for the state.
He added that there is more transparency with Pulama Lana'i compared to Castle & Cooke.
Maui County Council Member Riki Hokama, who holds the Lanai residency seat, echoed some of Gima's views, offering a mixed bag of applause and caution.
"I can say Kurt Matsumoto is very sensitive being a former Lanai boy. He and his team are trying to put together the best plans to mitigate the situations that may arise," Hokama said.
The council member said that he told the company that he wants to make sure that Lanai businesses benefit from the new construction and development and that local companies are patronized.
"We are going to be watching carefully if our businesses are given those opportunities," Hokama added.
He said Pulama Lana'i has been put on notice regarding how construction and new workers to the island could impact the island socially, economically and environmentally. The county is keeping an eye on the situation and how a growing population may increase the need for county services, such as police and fire, he said.
He would like to see better communication, though.
"We had occasional discussions about the company's efforts on Lanai, but I would say it's not consistent, as often as it should be," he said.
Overall, Hokama said, what Ellison has done so far has "been very positive for the island," citing bringing back workers and driving down unemployment. But he added that Ellison's work so far can be considered basically catch-up, cleaning up things from the last owner, adding that Ellison has done a good job of that.
"For some people, one year is a long time. For me, this is still a probation period," said Hokama.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.