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An Inside Look at Larry Ellison's Lanai

Tech billionaire Larry Ellison has set out to transform the Pineapple Isle into a “laboratory for sustainability.” How does Lanai feel about that?


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Deferred maintenance on the hundreds of homes and apartments that Ellison suddenly owned was tackled. New construction began on vacant residential lots around town, in the classic plantation style of the island’s existing architecture. The stately Cook pines at Dole Park—now also Ellison’s property—were pruned for the first time in memory. The unsightly concrete parking barricades ringing the park disappeared overnight, and the old men who sit in the park each day at what’s known as the Old Man’s Pavilion got a new roof over their heads.

The Four Seasons at Manale.

The Lodge at Koele.

At the resorts, the gaudy Asian decor Murdock put in lobby of the Four Seasons at Manele Bay and the English country manor-style decor he installed at the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele were replaced with sleeker, lighter, more Hawaiian furnishings. At the community’s outdoor basketball court, b-ballers got a brand-new, all-weather playing surface. At the Administrative Services building, the pineapple plantation’s old headquarters, the hated kukui nut trees that had rained hard-shelled hell upon the parking lot for years were cut down and replaced with more auto-body-friendly palms.

The Four Seasons resort hotel championship golf course.

Photos: Ryan Siphers

The list of projects went on and on. Change was coming quickly to sleepy Lanai, although where it was all headed was a mystery at first. Ellison was pouring money into cosmetic improvements, but for the first three months after the purchase he revealed nothing about his long-term plans for the island.

Naturally, Lanaians developed theories as to why Ellison bought their island. Maybe he wanted to one-up Bill Gates, his software rival, two notches above him on the richest-person-in-the-world list. When Gates got married on Lanai in 1994, he famously booked all the airline flights and hotel rooms in order to have some privacy. What Gates had merely rented, Ellison now owned. Or maybe Ellison was a “prepper,” an end-of-the-world survivalist who needed a safe place to retreat to in the event civilization collapses. Or maybe he just wanted to have a warm, sunny training base for his America’s Cup sailing team. The strong winds and protected waters on the north side of the island do, after all, offer ideal conditions for high-speed sailing.

The sailing-base theorists, it turned out, were onto something.

Ellison poured hundreds of millions of dollars into winning the America’s Cup, international yacht racing’s most coveted prize, which he captured in 2010 after two previous attempts. As the winner, it was his prerogative to set the terms of the next race, which is currently underway in—his choice—San Francisco Bay. To broaden the race’s appeal for a TV audience, Ellison invented an entirely new type of boat: a frighteningly fast, 72-foot catamaran powered by a 13-story-tall, winglike sail. The boats can travel upwards of 50 miles per hour, and they’re prone to catastrophic wipeouts. During America’s Cup trials last spring, one sailor died in just such an accident. The sailing world is torn over Ellison’s monstrous innovation, with some saying the boats are simply too dangerous and shouldn’t be sailed at all.

In September 2012, Ellison’s Team Oracle USA filed permits with the state to use Lanai’s Kaumalapau Harbor—which is mainly utilized for the weekly barge deliveries from Honolulu—as a temporary winter training base. But, soon after, the team cancelled its Hawaii plans, explaining that modifications that needed to be done to the boat conflicted with the time it might spend in the Islands.

Lanai’s first glimpse at what Ellison himself had to say about the future of the island came in October from an unexpected place: cable TV, and more specifically, a financial news show on CNBC called Closing Bell. Ellison granted the host, Maria Bartiromo, a rare interview after wrapping up Oracle OpenWorld, his company’s annual technology conference in San Francisco. Mostly they talked about the conference proceedings, but after two commercial breaks Bartiromo asked this round-about question: “You must be a lot of fun to go shopping with. And the island of Lanai. I mean, that was such a—you love Hawaii or what was that?”

Ellison replied that he did love Hawaii, and that Lanai was an “interesting” project. “What we are going to do is turn Lanai into a model for sustainable enterprise,” he said. “I own the water utility, I own the electric utility, and the electric utility is going to be solar photovoltaic and solar thermal, where it can convert seawater into fresh water. And then we have drip irrigation, where we are going to have organic farms all over the island. Hopefully, we are going to export produce, really the best, organic produce, to Japan and elsewhere.”

He added that he’s going to help local people start businesses, and there will be electric cars, and that the island will become “a little, if you will, laboratory for sustainability in business of small scale.”

So there it was. The world finally had a concrete vision statement about Ellison’s designs for Lanai, and it was surprising, exciting and completely in tune with the zeitgeist of the age. It was also, technically, incorrect.

Strictly speaking, Ellison doesn’t own the entire island of Lanai—just 98 percent of it. Thanks to a hard-fought union battle in the 1950s, most of the homes in Lanai City are on fee-simple land, rather than leasehold land. While Ellison owns about a third of the island’s housing, the majority of homes belong to property owners of far more modest means. The state of Hawaii and Maui County own the rest of the non-Ellisonian parts of Lanai, including the airport, the two harbors, the three main roads and the single school, which serves elementary through high school students.

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