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Island of Lanai is Sold

Oracle Corporation Co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison Buys Lanai

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Map of Lanai

Map of Lanai

Photo by John Fischer, licensed to About.com

Most visitors to Hawaii do not realize that two of the eight major Hawaiian Islands are actually almost completely privately owned.

It's no surprise, however, when you look back in history and see how much of the land in Hawaii, that is not owned by the State, is still owned by one of the Big Five former sugarcane families/companies (Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., American Factors (now Amfac) and Theo H. Davies & Co.), Kamehameha Schools, or one of a select few landholders. In fact, most Hawaii residents and business lease the land under their homes from one of these landowners.

In Hawaii, the island of Ni'ihau is owned, by the Robinson Family, which also owns large parcels of land on the island of Kauai.

The island of Lana'i is also 97-98% privately owned and it is currently, as of June 2012, being sold.

A Brief Look at the History of Lanai From the 1800's to the Present

Before we look at the new owner, let's step back a few years.

Throughout the 1800's numerous commercial ventures were attempted on Lana'i and they all failed. Chinese born Wu Tsin in 1802 attempted to grow sugar cane. A penal colony was established in 1830 and failed. A Mormon settlement in the mid 1800's brought hundreds, but only one stayed, Walter Murray Gibson who bought 26,000 acres (about 1/3 of the island) and began a goat and sheep ranch. The ranch failed, but his descendants stayed on island and once again failed in an attempt to grow sugar cane.

For the first 20 years of the 20th century, the island's ownership passed from Charles Gay of the Robinson Family of Ni'ihau, to a consortium of businessmen who attempted cattle ranching. The next owner was Henry Alexander Baldwin, once plantation manager of Alexander & Baldwin. Baldwin in turn sold his holdings to James Dole in 1922 for $1.1 million.

Dole invested significantly, improving the island's ranch operations and devoting about 16,000 acres in the center of the island to pineapple production, creating what was at the time, the biggest pineapple plantation in the world, producing, at its peak, 75% of the world's pineapples. The island became widely known as "The Pineapple Island."

In 1926 Dole harvested the first pineapple on Lana'i. During these years, Lana'i City was built around a central park, still known today at Dole Park. The Hotel Lana'i was built in 1923 as a retreat for his executives and important guests.

In 1961 the Dole Pineapple Company merged with Castle & Cooke.

David Murdock Buys Lana'i

The next major change in the island occurred in 1986 when David Murdock took control of Castle & Cooke who decided to change the direction of the island once again, by making it a major tourist destination. Investing over $400 million Murdock built the Lodge at Koele and Manele Bay Hotel. The two resorts are today managed by Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

It also had become apparent that pineapple would not be in the future of Lanai. Cheaper production costs elsewhere in the world had made continued production impractical. The last pineapples were harvested on Lana'i in 1992. In 1996, Castle & Cooke was spun off from Dole and is today totally owned by CEO David Murdock. The current company's business is in real estate and residential, commercial and retail development.

An Unprofitable Venture

Murdocks's tenure as owner of Lana'i has not always been easy. He has generally been considered a good steward of the land and its residents which now are said to number around 3100 (as of the 2010 US Census). About a third work of the residents work directly for Castle & Cooke or the resorts.

Despite his efforts, however, ownership of Lana'i has not been a profitable venture, with losses reported to be in the $20-30 million annually over the past five years. When a segment of the residents spearheaded by the group Friends of Lana'i protested a development of a wind-farm in the area of the island known as The Garden of the Gods, Murdock appeared to have put aside his plans and in late 2011 made it known that the island was for sale.

Murdock Sells Lana'i

On June 20, 2012 it was reported by the Associated Press and numerous Hawaii news sources, that Oracle Corporation co-founder and CEO Larry Ellison has signed a sales agreement to purchase the vast majority of Murdock's holdings including the resorts and their two golf courses, a solar farm, various real-estate holdings, two water utilities, a transportation company and a significant amount of the land. Ellison is the world's sixth-richest billionaire worth a reported $36 billion, according to Forbes). The Star-Advertiser reports that Murdock will retain his home on Lana'i as well as the rights to develop the controversial wind-farm.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports that "Castle & Cooke, in documents filed with the state, said Ellison intends to bring new investment to Lana'i that should reinvigorate tourism, stimulate its economy and create new jobs." Nevertheless, island residents remain cautious about the sale.

Only time will tell what the island's future will be under its new owner and steward.

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