Every morning for years, a group of regular customers has gathered around a big table at the Blue Ginger Cafe on Lana'i for a heated discussion of world events. Rarely have they found themselves the center of discussion.
But with Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison set to purchase 98 percent of the Hawaiian island, the takeover has local small business owners and their customers buzzing.
The world's sixth-richest billionaire investing in the island "is a good thing for small business," said Phoenix Dupree, general manager of the Blue Ginger Cafe. "Now we have a better future."
The news of Ellison's investment came as a relief to local businesses and residents, as rumors had swirled that Lana'i current major property owner, billionaire David Murdock, would close the island's two Four Seasons resorts if he couldn't sell his stake in the island. Dupree said that possibility "created instability" on Lana'i, where 70 to 80 percent of the jobs come from those resorts. "If that happened, half the businesses on the island would be done. We go as the hotels go."
To outsiders, Ellison seems to be buying the ultimate billionaire's status symbol, as well as a piece of paradise, but for Lana'i business owners, he is simply becoming "our landlord," said Dupree. "And he will probably be the person we pay our water bill to. We have a new head honcho."
Lana'i is mostly known for those two Four Seasons luxury resorts (and as the location for Bill Gates's 1994 wedding), but its 50 miles of oceanfront land, unspoiled rugged beauty and lack of need for traffic lights give the island "a bit of a sense of old Hawai'i," said Georgia Abilay, owner of the Blue Ginger Cafe.
Dupree described the island as "a throwback in time," noting there's very little crime.
"We look out for each other and each other's families," he said. "If you walk through town, teenagers say hi to you. If you cheat on your partner, they're going to find out by the time you get home. It's that small. ... We all talk, because that's what we have to do every day."
Murdock owned Lana'i for 25 years and was responsible for controversial moves, such as shutting down its pineapple industry and proposing a wind farm. He was reportedly losing $10 million a year on the island. The sale price wasn't not disclosed, but the Maui News reported Murdock was asking between $500 and $600 million, according to the Associated Press.
Dupress said he understood why Murdock was looking for a buyer. "If Blue Ginger Cafe lost money every year for 25 years, I'd have to shut down, too," he said. "But I'm excited that Mr. Ellison is taking over and has a lot of financial resources. If he keeps the hotels and looks at other ways to diversity our economy -- whether that's bio fuels or another solar farm, a marine biology school or a community college -- then Lana'i will have better days ahead."
Dupree said he's "not in a position to advise one of the wealthiest men in the world," but like other small business owners on Lana'i, he's hoping the man who invested just $1,200 to start Oracle will be able to work a similar innovative miracle with the local economy.
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