First there was the world’s largest pineapple plantation. Then there were a pair of fancy resorts. As the principal industry on Lanai, neither was diversified and both proved financially unsustainable.
The new owner of 98 percent of the island has a plan touted as both diversified and sustainable. That sounds good to many residents, though time will tell if the still-largely conceptual model lives up to its billing — assuming the ambitious plan can be executed.
Four areas on the 140-square-mile island are proposed for new industries and housing under the master plan envisioned by Larry Ellison, the software industry billionaire who bought Lanai two years ago and has called his plan for the island a "model for sustainable enterprise."
On Thursday, Ellison stepped down after 37 years as CEOof Oracle Corp., the company he co-founded in 1977, leading some to speculate he may focus more on Lanai.
Lori Teranishi, a spokeswoman for the firm Ellison formed to manage the island, Pulama Lana’i, declined to comment on the issue.
The most concentrated piece of Ellison’s plan being advanced by Pulama involves expanding Lanai City to more than triple its size.
Under the plan, the town’s residential and commercial core would grow by 546 acres. Most of the expansion area would accommodate new homes and small businesses needed to support a more diverse economy and bigger population.
Other additions in or around an expanded Lanai City include a tennis academy, film studios, a university campus and a rural residential subdivision.
The tennis academy would be in a 50-acre park setting with dormitory housing arranged to attract amateur players from around the world who seek to become professionals.
Film studios would be on 22 acres just outside the expanded city.
A university campus is slated for 524 acres outside the town’s envisioned new western edge. Pulama wants to attract a university research center that would draw students from around the world to study sustainability.
The rural housing subdivision is proposed for 50 acres next to horse stables in Koele just to the north of Lanai City. Lot sizes would range from a half-acre to 10 acres and allow farming.
According to an August draft update of the Lanai Community Plan — which is headed for consideration by the Maui County Council — new homes and street patterns would be similar to historic parts of the town conceived by Hawaiian Pineapple Co. founderJames Dole in 1923 a year after he bought nearly all of the island to establish a pineapple plantation.
Pulama estimates the island’s population might grow by as much as twofold — from roughly 3,000 to 6,000 people — over the next 20 years to support economic diversification. Yet to support so many more residents, housing inventory would have to double from about 1,400 to 2,800.
Such growth is scary to some residents.
"It’s scary because it’s an unknown,"said Butch Gima, president of the community group Lanaians for Sensible Growth. Gima said residents are worried that people from the mainland seeking to fill all the new jobs envisioned by Pulama will alter Lanai’s culture.
"We like how it is now,"added Mikala Enfield, an interpreter at the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center.
Enfield, who was born on Maui but raised on Lanai in a family that traces its roots back to the island, said sensible growth is fine, but she fears that her community — the last intact plantation town in Hawaii — will become another resort town like Kaanapali, Maui. "That changes our culture,"she said.
Lanai’s previous owner, billionaire David Murdock of Castle &Cooke Inc., supplanted pineapple farming with two luxury hotels. Ellison is buffing up those properties with a hefty ongoing renovation of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay and a temporarily paused redesign of the golf course at the other Four Seasons hotel, The Lodge at Koele.
Ellison intends to expand tourism on the island. He bought local airline Island Air and enhanced service to Lanai. He also proposed adding a second runway to the Lanai airport, though the draft community plan calls for only extending the existing runway.
Under Ellison’s plan, a new oceanfront hotel with up to 100 guest units would be built on the island’s eastern shore where a day-trip activity center called Club Lanai once operated.
The proposed resort would be in the style of a Hawaiian village with elevated bungalow accommodations and a beach club on 20 acres with views of Maui and Molokai. The resort at Kahalepalaoa Beach also would be bordered by a rural residential subdivision with up to 50 homes spread over 250 acres of largely oceanfront land and bracketed by two public beach parks.
To prevent further urban expansion in the area, a permanent open space buffer around the resort and residential area is proposed.
Another piece of resort expansion is envisioned to occur around the existing Manele resort on 76 acres for rural residential housing. This area borders an edge of the resort where Pulama can already build vacation homes.
Land currently permitted for resort home development on Lanai allows up to 460 homes at Manele and 640 at Koele. To date, only about 11 percent of the homes — roughly 80 units at Manele and 40 units at Koele — have been built, according to the community plan. Pulama has not resumed resort home or house lot development and sales that were halted by Murdock about four years ago.
Above Manele resort at the top of a winding road that descends steeply to Hulopoe Bay, an area for urban expansion dubbed Manele Mauka is outlined in the draft community plan, and would include homes on 83 acres, a 20-acre park and 2 acres for businesses to reduce trips to Lanai City for gas, groceries and other things.
Another area considered for housing is above Kaumalapau Harbor, Lanai’s industrial harbor, where 50 acres of ocean-view lots are proposed. Adding 10 acres of industrial space to support harbor activities along with potential fish farming and processing facilities is also proposed above the harbor.
With so much planned growth, a new landfill will be needed, or trash will have to be shipped off the island, according to the draft community plan that estimates the existing landfill will be full in six years.
Besides residential growth and new commercial urban development, Ellison’s plan calls for re-establishing commercial farming in a big way.
Pulama intends to work with farmers interested in growing organic crops to supply the entire island and for export to neighbor islands and outside Hawaii. Currently, an 18-acre farm run by Alberta de Jetley is the only major commercial farm on the island.
Pineapple at one time covered 18,000 acres on Lanai, where the crop was well suited because of its low thirst for water. With drip irrigation and a diversity of organic crops that could include grapes for wineries, Ellison wants to make the island an "agricultural destination unlike any other."
A lot of infrastructure will be needed to support all the envisioned growth in commercial industries, housing and population. The biggest limitation on Lanai to such growth is potable water.
There is much concern that Lanai’s supply of fresh water from its underground aquifer is being degraded by existing uses on the island, particularly golf course irrigation.
Ellison is addressing that issue by proposing several desalination plants around the island that would turn salt water into fresh water.
"That’s a big game-changer,"said Lanai resident Gabe Johnson.
Pat Reilly, a retired school counselor on Lanai who testified at a June Lanai Planning Commission hearing at which a special-use permit for an initial desalination plant was approved, said Pulama’s development plan for the island depends on making fresh water.
"If you want development, you need more water," he said, according to meeting minutes. "That’s really a fundamental issue."
Renewable energy is another technological part of Ellison’s plan, which calls for producing 100 percent of the island’s energy through renewable sources.
An existing solar farm with 7,400 photovoltaic panels developed by Murdock already provides 10 percent of the
island’s total electricity needs.
Though Murdock tried to establish a wind farm on Lanai mainly to sell power to Oahu, windmills are not part of Ellison’s vision.
Renewable power generation for Lanai primarily would be from photovoltaic and hydroelectric systems. Hydroelectric power involves pumping water uphill to reservoirs and releasing the water downhill and through a turbine to produce energy when solar energy is unavailable like at night or during cloudy days.
Using renewable energy to power cars on the island is another aspect of the Pulama plan, which calls for an electric car-sharing program for residents and visitors. So far, Pulama has invested in some Nissan Leaf vehicles and charging stations for company use.
Altogether the renewable energy, desalination, organic farming, academic research, film production, tennis training and tourism are supposed to become a diversified and sustainable model to economically support a bigger but still relatively small island community.
"In the future, what Isee is us being much more durable,"Kurt Matsumoto, the Lanai-born executive recruited by Ellison to head Pulama, said in a video explaining the company’s vision. "We’ll have multiple economies. We’ll have multiple streams of revenue. We’ll have all kinds of different layers that we can see supplementing each other. So if the hospitality industry has a dip as it will likely have in the future, we’ll have other types of economies to support the rest of the community. Hopefully generations to come can be very proud to say that they live and they work here on the island of Lanai."
Pulama calls its vision "clear in concept, vast in scope and complex in implementation." To realize its vision, the company recognizes tremendous planning is still required along with community support. "More than anything, success will depend on the support and participation of the people of Lanai,"the company said on its website. "It will take us all, working together, to make it so."
» To what degree do Lanai residents embrace Ellison’s vision?