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The Island of Lana'i Has Been Remade Into Ellisonia

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What's it like to live on Ellisonia, an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in the middle of the state of Hawaii that is owned (well, 98% of it anyway) by one of the world's richest men? These days it's probably a lot like riding on Oracle's America Cup yacht: fast, dangerous, and rewarding.

Larry Ellison, one of the top six wealthiest man on the planet, purchased almost all of Lana'i from real estate developer David Murdock a little over a year ago. Being a curmudgeon, and a penny-pinching one at that, Murdock had done virtually nothing to upkeep Lana'i assets during the previous five years, aside from mortgaging the island for up to $600 million; he had, in sad fact, laid off over 25% of his employees, in a vain attempt to save money. By his own admission, Murdock's real estate development on Lana'i had failed -- something he reminded us at every possible opportunity, implying it was the fault of residents.

What he also did, before he gave up and sold out to Ellison, was rant and rave and try to push the State of Hawaii into declaring an "energy emergency" so he could build 170+ massive wind turbines covering one-quarter of Lanai, on land which he considered "waste" land (because it wasn't producing income for him). This idea was not met with much approval from those of us who actually live on Lana`i, and a small group of Lana'i residents formed Friends of Lana`i (FOL) to stop it.

That was five years ago; FOL now counts its supporters in the hundreds -- on Lana'i, other islands in Hawaii and even many Mainland residents (mostly visitors who came to Lana'i for its beauty and quiet, and wondered: what was Murdock thinking in trying to despoil it?). This ill-conceived, extraordinarily expensive and irreparably damaging industrial wind power plant planned for Lana'i would have required an undersea cable to bring the highly intermittent wind power one-way to Oahu (costing rate and taxpayers close to a billion dollars) but neither component has gotten very far.

Regardless of the fact that permanently destroying one-quarter of this remote, rural island in exchange for providing perhaps 5% of Honolulu's ever-increasing demands for electricity was a really bad idea, the return to Murdock would have been substantial, somewhere around $150 million annually. Something worth fighting for if you are an insecure billionaire.

But one year ago, Ellison arrived (on his yacht) to buy out Murdock's interests. And voila! we're on our way to big changes. Most don't know this, but the island of Lana'i has had a single individual owner since the late 1870s when a less-than-honest Mormon proselytizer bought - or otherwise got control over - pretty much the entire island. Walter Murray Gibson was supposed to secure control of Lana`i for the Church of the LDS, and was excommunicated when he kept title in his own name, but his greed effectively set the island's future ownership paradigm. Jim Dole, through Hawaiian Pineapple Corporation (HAPCO), controlled the island from 1924 to 1987, and Murdock's reign began in 1985 and ended in 2012. Enter Larry Ellison.

Shortly after the sale, Ellison decided to open a Nobu restaurant, and he wanted it completed before Christmas. In early November, he began building a brand new, very upscale restaurant in the Manele Bay Hotel (operated by Four Seasons), and talk about 24/7! In just five weeks, a new dining room, new kitchen, new staff - new everything - was ready.

What's it like to live on Ellisonia? Well, Murdock had built a community swimming pool, but he closed it. So what does Ellison do? One of his first community efforts was to refurbish and then re-open the community pool. A huge number of workers, many previously unemployed, were on tap 24/7, lights at night, and zap -- the pool opened in just a few weeks.

We've gone from a feudal lord who saw his profits decimated by community involvement, corporate mismanagement and an absence of stewardship, to an owner who is delving into improving almost every aspect of our lives. New summer programs for our young folks and a hospice for our kupuna (seniors). Clearing years of accumulated invasive plants around treasured historic sites. Exploring an education system that looks to institute a pre-school- through-post-graduate education.

Solving the island's perennial water shortages with a desalination effort. Expanding the always-challenged housing stock. Investing in infrastructure improvements. Hiring hundreds of workers, including senior management with strong Lana'i roots.

The pace is astounding, made more so when compared to the snail-like pace of community improvements just 12 months ago. But traditionally, change on Lana'i is slow. Waiting for three cars to pass before entering the main road was the usual; today it can take waiting for 10 cars. Now that's rapid change for Lana'i.

So what's it like to live on Ellisonia? Cautious optimism abounds.