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Residents’ opinions swirl on Ellison’s plan

  • DENNIS ODA
    Maui resident Kathleen Noelani Soule
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Larry Ellison has sketched out a rough picture for a new era on Lanai. It is how the world’s fifth-richest person sees the future of an island he owns. Yet without fine details, it’s hard for many residents to judge whether the picture is nice or not.

"The devil is in the details,"said Pat Reilly, a 36-year Lanai resident who retired as a Lanai High and Elementary School counselor in 2009.

Reilly, like many longtime Lanai residents, is largely reserving judgment about Ellison’s plan to give the island’s economy, people and environment a more sustainable future.

It’s been two years since Ellison, founder and recently resigned CEO of software firm Oracle Corp., bought Lanai from a less wealthy billionaire, David Murdock of Castle & Cooke Inc. Residents have seen a few pieces of the new owner’s plan start to bud, yet many remain unsure of, or wary of, how Ellison’s goals and values align with theirs.

CHERISHING LANAI

Ellison and his Lanai management company Pulama Lana’i have earned considerable goodwill for some town improvement work and a receptiveness to hear residents. Yet there is also some feeling that a honeymoon period is wearing off.

One early move that earned Ellison goodwill was Pulama reopening a community pool that Murdock closed because of cost.

Not only did Pulama reopen the pool; the company renovated the facility with additions of high-quality patio lounge chairs, umbrellas and lush landscaping. And next to the pool, the company restored a playground and basketball court.

"That was a big deal,"said Barbara Lucas, an 18-year Lanai resident and owner of the restaurant Pele’s Other Garden.

In the middle of Lanai City, Pulama enhanced landscaping for storefronts that make up the town’s commercial core after a period of neglect.

"Before (Ellison took over), everything was bare red dirt,"said Doreen Pascua, a second-generation Lanai resident who drives seniors around town for Maui Economic Opportunity Inc.

Pulama is also praised for providing residents with long-missed services. For instance, the company renovated one of the many old plantation homes it owns so it could become a hospice a few months ago. Previously, residents had to arrange hospice service in their own homes or off island. Pulama also is about to start converting a historic plantation building into the only pharmacy on Lanai.

And the company has been commended for its sensitivity toward Lanai’s history.

Last month, Pulama held a ceremony before commencing work to demolish and rebuild three historic but condemned company-owned plantation homes, and invited past occupants to reconnect with former neighbors and say goodbye to a 90-year-old piece of the neighborhood.

Midy Eharis, 83, and her late husband, Johnny, raised five children in one of the three houses built in 1924 near the town square’s edge.

The Eharis matriarch recalled how when Castle &Cooke moved her and her husband out of the decaying house in 2007 to a home across the street, she snuck back in one day to "check" on her old residence.

"Icried and cried,"she said. "We loved this house."

Pulama plans to rebuild the homes replicating exterior architecture yet with modern interiors, and make the residences available for rent.

Four Eharis children — Dot, Deborah, Robert and John Jr. — plus one grandson, Glen Yoza, flew from Oahu for the blessing. Doreen Pascua, the fifth sibling, who lives on Lanai, also was there.

"Growing up here was real unique,"said John Eharis Jr. "I’m touched to have something like this (ceremony). It was real touching to be involved."

The blessing was a first, according to Kepa Maly, executive director of the Lanai Culture & Heritage Center. Maly, who was raised on Lanai and hired by Pulama for historic preservation efforts, said the company’s approach is unlike Castle & Cooke’s.

"This is how we live up to the name cherishing and caring for Lanai," he said, referring to the English translation of Pulama Lana’i.

NOT ALL LOVE

But the company also has had some not-so-smooth interactions with the community.

There has been resident push-back on some Pulama initiatives such as a water desalination permit that involved contentious public hearings before an approval of a permit that was shorter than Pulama sought –15 years instead of 30.

Reilly, the retired school counselor, said contention over desalination shows the community concern for the island and uncertainty over how pulling salt water up through deep wells on the island might affect Lanai’s fresh groundwater supply.

"This has never been done on Lanai, and we don’t know how it will affect the high-level aquifer,"he said. "We live here. It’s our job to protect what we have here."

Butch Gima, a social worker and president of Lanaians for Sensible Growth, gives Pulama a mixed review. He credits Ellison for hiring a Lanai native, Kurt Matsumoto, as chief operating officer of Pulama and said the company is more accessible and willing to listen to community feedback and make changes.

And though Gima regards former owner Castle &Cooke as having been more imperialistic and loaded with mainland executives making decisions on Lanai, he said Pulama has senior vice presidents from Honolulu who aren’t dialed into the local culture. "Honolulu style is very different from Lanai style," Gima said. "They’re still learning Lanai style."

ULTRA LUXURY

One thing potentially affecting Lanai style is more extremely wealthy visitors coming to the island.

Ellison is renovating the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay hotel, which has upped its least expensive rate for redone rooms to $650 a night.

Four Seasons, which used to operate transportation shuttles available to anyone on the island for a fee, upgraded its fleet to Mercedes Sprinter vans that now exclude nonhotel guests.

At Hulopoe Beach Park, which is owned and managed by Ellison’s company, it even costs more to camp — $60 for a couple staying one night or $210 for a party of four staying three nights, up from $45 and $145, respectively.

In Lanai City, Pulama remodeled former mom-and-pop grocery store Richard’s Market into an upscale supermarket last year.

All the upgrading makes some residents feel that Ellison is trying to make the island a too exclusive visitor destination.

Earlier this year Ellison bought the only moderate-priced hotel on the island, the 11-room Hotel Lanai. Pulama has not said why it bought the hotel where room rates range from $149 to $229 a night.

HOUSING PAINS

Another issue frustrating many residents is the housing shortage. Ellison owns about a third of all Lanai homes — roughly 455 of 1,400 units — and maintains a waiting list of people wishing to rent his homes. The size of the list is undisclosed.

Gima said the secrecy leads some residents to believe the tenant selection process is unfair.

Pulama aims to build more homes but owns no undeveloped land zoned for residential use outside of the existing resorts. Rezoning is a long process that is underway with an update of the Lanai Community Plan, which is headed for consideration by the Maui County Council.

Maui County has plans to develop 412 affordable homes on land it received from Castle &Cooke as part of a condition for resort development. The county completed an environmental assessment and has state approval to urbanize the site on the edge of Lanai City. However, there is no timetable for development.

The draft community plan suggests that Pulama could do a land swap and build the affordable homes more quickly, though nothing has come of discussions so far between the company and the county.

In the interim, Pulama is demolishing and rebuilding a dozen old homes, including the former Eharis residence, and starting renovations on another eight to 10 homes.

HOPE ABOUNDS

Lanai High and Elementary School Principal Elton Kinoshita envisions that Pulama’s plans can provide students with many high-skill jobs previously missing from the island, and reverse the trend of kids moving away after graduation.

"There’s a lot of hope,"he said.

In the past, many midmanagement jobs went to new arrivals. So Kinoshita is working to better prepare students, and this year added agriculture and culinary teachers.

Pulama also retained a liaison to work with the school, Lanai native and retired Roosevelt High School principal Dennis Hokama, on certain initiatives to align education with the island’s future.

Of course, there is a question as to how much of Ellison’s vision will come to fruition.

One prior grand vision never fully developed was a 1973 Castle &Cooke plan calling for six hotels with 1,000 to 2,000 rooms and 3,000 house lots. That plan anticipated Lanai’s population growing to an "optimum" 12,500.

Pulama, which projects its plan could as much as double the island’s population to 6,000 from about 3,000, cautions that most of what it has laid out is still tentative and conceptual.

"Pulama Lana’i has outlined in broad strokes what it would like to do in certain areas, but the company views these as placeholders or general ideas as opposed to definitive plans it will pursue,"Pulama spokeswoman Lori Teranishi said in an email.

The fact that visions don’t always take hold or last is evident on Lanai where pineapple farming disappeared and luxury hotels produced a financial hole for prior owners. Even one well-publicized recent initiative — a produce garden started two years ago by the Nobu restaurant Ellison arranged at the Manele hotel — has struggled.

The Nobu garden is featured in a trailer for a documentary film dubbed "Lanai Beyond the Grid" produced by a publicist hired by Ellison.

The restaurant’s initial chef, Oyvind Naesheim, started growing produce on Lanai for daily use in dishes.

The trailer showed off salad greens, tomatoes, eggplant, asparagus, corn, carrots, beets, cilantro, serrano peppers and more.

"For me to have this garden, it’s second to none,"Naesheim said in the clip. "When you have a salad bought from a supplier, that could be picked a week (or) 10 days before you even got it. All this flavor is changing and disappearing. This (fresh produce)is grown handmade on Lanai to be eaten that day. Handmade vegetables by chefs. You can taste the love in our vegetables."

Over the past two years, the Nobu garden has largely withered in part because of impacts from wild turkeys — an illustration of how difficult being sustainable can be.

However, the restaurant still picks a reduced variety of vegetables twice a week, and there is a plan to restore the garden to its once bountiful production.

ENLARGE PHOTO.

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