HONOLULU Residents of the tropical paradise of Lanai hope the pending purchase of Hawaii's sixth-largest island by billionaire Oracle CEO Larry Ellison will mean improvements to its resorts and golf courses to boost tourism and provide new jobs.
But the island's former owner, fellow billionaire David Murdock, is retaining the right to develop a wind farm that some residents fear will harm archeological sites and native birds.
Hawaii's governor said on Wednesday that Ellison, ranked in 2012 as America's third-richest man, was purchasing the property from Murdock, whose real estate company Castle & Cooke owns all but 2 percent of Lanai's 141 square miles (365 square km).
Previous media reports put the price tag at between $500 million and $600 million, but the price was not revealed in Wednesday's filing.
"Murdock had a fantastic vision, but his turn of being the steward of Lanai is over," said Mary Charles, owner of the historic Hotel Lanai on the edge of Lanai City's main square, saying she was looking forward to having a younger and wealthier investor.
Once known for its pineapple fields, Lanai is now visited for its two Four Seasons resorts, golf courses and luxury housing. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates booked every hotel room on the island for his 1994 wedding.
With Ellison's fortune pegged at $36 billion, many Lanai residents hope he'll be able to upgrade the island's facilities and draw more tourists. Lanai depends primarily on its resorts to employ its nearly 3,000 residents.
Ellison will take over ownership of the two luxury Four Seasons resorts as part of his 98 percent share of the island. The remaining 2 percent is owned by a smorgasbord of private residents and local government.
"The resorts need capital improvements. The golf courses need improving," Charles said. "The business community is very optimistic he will be doing that. Ellison's group is saying all the right things."
Lanai faces a continued tourism challenge with an airport runway that does not accommodate large planes. But as the world's sixth-wealthiest man, Ellison may be beyond worrying about the island's profitability.
YOUNGER, WEALTHIER PATRON
With Murdock's departure, Lanai is losing an 89-year-old billionaire with $3 billion dollars, but gaining another who's 20 years younger with 10 times Murdock's personal fortune.
With no indication Ellison is considering bold changes on the island, Hawaii's politicians have welcomed him.
"We look forward to meeting Mr. Ellison and hope that by working together with him and the state that we may be able to do good things for Lanai and its people," Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa, whose county owns 195 acres on Lanai, said on Thursday.
The island comes with a fair share of controversies. Plans for a wind farm there have drawn stiff resistance. Murdock had wanted the wind farm in operation this year, but opposition has delayed the project.
As part of the sales agreement, Murdock is retaining the right to develop the 200-megawatt wind energy project on northwestern Lanai. Robin Kaye, spokesman for Friends of Lanai, said the plans jeopardize sensitive Hawaiian archeological sites and native birds.
"We had hoped with the new owner the farm wouldn't go forward," he said.
Chris Lovvorn, director of alternative energy for Castle & Cooke, said he was hopeful Lanai will one day be 100 percent energy self-sufficient, and said that the company would address residents' concerns.
Kepa Maly, executive director of the Lanai Cultural Heritage Center, wants both Murdock and Ellison to respect the island's 1,000 years worth of Native Hawaiian history and artifacts in their future plans for the island.
"These are sacred places," Maly said. "They're more than just piles of stones and bones. I hope we can see an updated vision of how a community can retain its legacy and still be a place for a successful business."
Ellison, known for his yachting passion, once owned one of the largest luxury yachts in the world: "Rising Sun." Published estimates of its cost range from $200 million to $250 million.
Ellison is also the owner of Oracle Racing, which won the 33rd America's Cup in 2010 under the name BMW Oracle Racing. As the Cup winner, Ellison and his team are now running the next America's Cup competition, which will take place next year on San Francisco Bay.
(Editing by Mary Slosson, Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)