Lanai, Hawaii, was once known as the pineapple capital of the world. Then, the pineapple plantations morphed into four-star resorts. So what's next? That's up to the island's new owner: Larry Ellison.
Ellison, the billionaire CEO of American computer technology corporation Oracle, isn't shy about making flashy purchases, but his latest carries a price tag approaching $600 million, according to the Maui News.
It's not every day the governor of Hawaii sends out a personalized welcome note to a new landowner, but it's not every day someone purchases 98 percent of a major Hawaiian island. So, Wednesday evening, Governor Neil Abercrombie rolled out the welcome mat.
We look forward to welcoming Mr. Ellison in the near future, he said. It is my understanding that Mr. Ellison has had a longstanding interest in Lanai. His passion for nature, particularly the ocean, is well known, specifically in the realm of America's Cup sailing. He is also a businessman whose record of community involvement in medical research and education causes is equally notable.
Ellison -- the world's sixth-richest man with a net worth of $36 billion, according to Forbes -- will assume ownership of the island from fellow American billionaire David Murdock, who will maintain his residence on the island and retain rights to develop a controversial wind energy farm, according to a statement released Wednesday.
James Dole, president of Hawaiian Pineapple Company (which was later renamed Dole Food Company), bought the island in the early 1920s and blanketed it in pineapple plantations. At one time, tiny Lanai produced some 75 percent of the world's pineapples, or so local historians say.
When Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state in August 1959, Lanai became a part of Maui County, and the state gained control of 2 percent of the island.
Murdock took control of the other 98 percent in 1985 when he bought out Castle & Cooke Hawaii Inc. Twelve years ago, he bought out Castle & Cooke shareholders for nearly $700 million and made the company private. He then closed down the island's pineapple operations and opened up two luxury resorts, both managed by the Four Seasons hotel chain.
Aside from the two resorts, Hawaii's sixth-largest publicly-accessible island boasts a string of golf courses and clubhouses, a 600-acre residential development and a coterie of luxury homes, according to a document filed with the Public Utilities Commission. Pineapple Island has no stoplights and mostly dirt roads which, like the school, library, hospital, airport and harbors, are all publicly funded by the government.
The 141-square-mile slice of paradise gained fame back in the mid-1990s as the location of Bill and Melinda Gates' wedding. The couple booked every available hotel room on the island for the occasion.
It remains a popular tourist destination, and it attracted some 26,000 visitors in the first quarter of 2012, according to state figures. Some nine miles west of the island of Maui, Pineapple Island is accessible by helicopter and small planes.
On GoHawaii.com, the Web portal of Hawaii's official tourism board, Lanai is romanticized as Hawaii's Most Enticing Island:
Away from the crowds and hustle of everyday life, Lanai is a destination of untouched tranquility. This romantic island is a true getaway. Wrap yourself in the elegance and amenities of two exquisite Four Seasons resorts. Unwind at the historic Hotel Lanai in charming Lanai City. Relax and rejuvenate in the peaceful seclusion that has earned Lanai the name, Hawaii's Most Enticing Island. For golfers, two high-caliber golf courses make Lanai a mandatory stop. And for explorers, enthralling sights like the lunar landscapes of Keahiakawelo (Garden of the Gods) and the iconic Puu Pehe (Sweetheart Rock) are distinctly unique to Lanai. It's true that Lanai isn't for everybody. And that's exactly why so many fall in love with it.
The sale of Lanai generates an extraordinary opportunity for the people and Island of Lanai to bring in new investment to the island that should result in the creation of new jobs, provide local economic stimulus and reinvigorate the local tourism industry, the application stated.
Ellison is expected to invest in Lanai's tourism sector and find ways to make the island profitable again. According to Hawaii state senator J. Kalani English, the island has been losing tens of millions of dollars a year in operating costs.
We need somebody with very deep pockets that understands this upfront that can continue these type of losses -- at least for the first few years, until we can find something to make the island valuable again, English told local station KHON.
Castle & Cook's website boasts of employing nearly half of the island's residents, which numbered around 3,500 on the last census.
The hope is that Ellison will invest in both tourism and other sectors to diversify the island's economy and get Lanai's residents back to work.