Residents of an island fractured by a proposed windmill project appeared "unsettled" by the uncertainty over a reported impending sale of the company that owns nearly all of Lanai but hopeful that the possible new owner would be willing to work with residents and improve the island economy.
The dividing line in the community appeared more stark when discussing the island's billionaire owner David Murdock, who drew praise from union and business leaders and criticism from groups opposed to his company's windmill project and other company activities.
Mayor Alan Arakawa said Monday that Murdock has a potential buyer for his privately held Castle & Cooke holdings on Lanai and that the deal could be consummated by the end of the week.
Supporters of David Murdock showed their appreciation for the owner of Castle & Cooke at a surprise gathering at the Lanai Airport on June 10, 2011. Murdock, who is reportedly close to selling the company that owns 98 percent of Lanai, is viewed as either a benevolent owner and employer or a “feudal baron” by residents interviewed.
ROBIN FANCY photo
Rumors have been rolling around the island for months, according to a half-dozen Lanai residents contacted Tuesday afternoon.
Butch Gima, president of the community group Lanaians for Sensible Growth, said that he's seen potential buyers on the island, "some serious, others kicking the proverbial tire," he said.
"There is a lot of rumors, and there is a lot of concern," said Council Member Riki Hokama, who holds the Lanai residency seat.
Noting that this would be the fourth owner change in his lifetime on Lanai, Hokama said that the older families have experienced this before, but for some of the younger families this could be "unsettling going through this major transition."
His past experience is that the sun will rise the day after the sale is announced, and life will go on. The county and state governments will make sure that essential operations will continue.
Hokama hopes that if there is a new owner that he or she "will show a commitment to the island and the community" and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and work with governmental agencies.
"There are still great opportunities for the island," he said.
Kainoa Kanno, who is involved in various community organizations on Lanai, put it another way. The possible new owners should follow three words in their dealings on Lanai: pono, malama and aloha.
"Whether it's the land or the businesses or the people . . . if everyone can benefit, it's a win-win" he said.
Castle & Cooke owns the island's luxury resorts, operated by Four Seasons, golf courses, the water utility and other businesses. The company owns 98 percent of the island.
The company is said to be losing as much as $40 million a year. The asking price for the island is reportedly between $500 million and $600 million.
Murdock, 89, has owned the island since 1985 and is worth an estimated $2.7 billion, according to Forbes. On Lanai, residents either like him or they dislike him, and the dividing lines are visible on his wind farm, proposed for as many as 12,800 acres on the northwestern part of the island.
"As a result of the wind project, the community has been real tense; it has been real tense," said Gima, whose group opposes the wind farm. "Within families they are having to choose sides."
On the one side is labor and the ILWU, with its 650 members on the island, and local businesses, who support the wind farm.
William Kennison, Maui division director for ILWU Local 142, said that the union has been kept "in the loop all the way" on the sale - even to the point where he knows who the buyer is but cannot disclose the name. He could not put a date to the closing of the deal but said that the sides are "very, very close."
"We have a say in what transpires," said Kennison, who represents hotel, golf course and landscape workers.
He noted that union contracts that encompass the next three to five years, depending on the units, involve cost items such as medical and pension plans.
"They have been assuring us all along that the ILWU is a very important partner in the operation on Lanai," said Kennison. "They are assuring us that whoever purchases the island will maintain the union contracts."
"Murdock, to the ILWU, has been a good employer," he added, noting that while Murdock has lost money his members have still received their raises.
The losses could pose a problem for the union in the future with a new owner. "Although we are hoping for the best. . . . there is always that uncertainty," he said.
Alberta de Jetley, publisher and editor of The Lanai Times, lamented the departure of Murdock, whom she said "loves Lanai."
In an interview with de Jetley in August, where he disclosed to her that he was planning to sell the island, Murdock said that he was "very hurt by the animosity" over the wind farm.
De Jetley took opponents of Murdock and the wind farm to task for arguing against his projects while not offering any solutions. She took issue with the characterization that he unilaterally shut down pineapple operations.
"If he hadn't developed tourism on the island, we would be sitting here with nothing," she said.
If Murdock sells the island, business owners need to step up. "We were lucky that Mr. Murdock had really deep pockets" to keep things going, but it's time for the development of new businesses, she said. Hotels have helped "sustain the economy" but tourism alone is not enough.
"We need to figure out what we are going to do on the island to strengthen the island," she said.
Those on the other side of the divide painted a different picture of Murdock and his wind farm plans.
Robin Kaye, spokesperson for Friends of Lana'i, a group formed to oppose the wind farm, hopes that if there is a new owner that the wind project will be nixed.
"We hope that the new owner will think that it's crazy and . . . an absolutely unnecessary idea. . . . and veto it," said Kaye.
The site of the wind farm is a "garden of the gods" where viewers can "feel the mana of the place" with views of Maui and Molokai across the channels.
"Why ruin it?" he asked.
Kaye said that he understands that the possible change in ownership is "unsettling" to residents, especially not knowing what the potential new owner's goals are. The new owners will wield a lot of power on the island.
"It's the year 2012," he said. "You have one feudal baron controlling 98 percent of one island. It's nuts."
Gima, who used the term "imperialistic attitudes" to describe Castle& Cooke, said he doesn't believe the divisiveness over the wind farm project alone led to Murdock's departure, but it might have been "the straw that broke the camel's back."
The company's financial woes can be attributed to poor location of its project district, poor management and high turnover, two recessions and not enough air seats to the island, he said.
Gima also blamed poor community relations and interaction with regulatory agencies. He said that the company often came across with "imperialistic attitudes" that may have worked on the Mainland but not did take into account "local style" and needs.
Lanaians for Sensible Growth through the years had taken an adversarial tack against Castle & Cooke, serving as a watchdog for the community as the company developed housing and tapped more of the aquifer. In recent years, the group has made a "paradigm shift" and begun taking a "more collaborative approach," especially in the area of economic viability, he said.
On the potential sale, Gima said that if the new owner is looking for a return on his or her investment, "we are pretty much screwed."
But if the buyer is a "benevolent buyer" and may be willing "to take a loss and perpetuate what is special here and what the residents feel is special" that person may be "more willing to engage the community" in its long-term future, he said.
"I personally feel whatever happens happens, it's out of my control . . . out of our community's control," he said. "We just have to be prepared to deal with this.
"I don't know how you could be prepared for this. That is the tough part of this. Many residents like myself care about the island."
* Lee Imada can be reached at email@example.com.