Saturday, August 17, 2013

Lanai: New Owner, Same Old Story

The island looming in the rain shadow of the West Maui Mountains has a curious past. It's an eerily quiet place. A hush falls over Lanai City and when you get out into the countryside - either along the rugged shores or along the dirt roads crisscrossing the island - the silence is pervasive and unsettling. There are no other towns, not a lot of people, and a single corporate entity casts its shadow over just about all of the affairs on the island.
Now that a new owner has bought the island, everyone is wondering what lies ahead for Lanai. Despite the changes that have been reported since Larry Ellison took over and renamed the resorts, bought an airline company, and is getting solar power to the island, one thing remains constant: The island still has just one owner.
The first person to consolidate land titles was the infamous Walter Murray Gibson. He was supposed to buy land for a Mormon colony, but he bought up land in his own name instead. When the leadership in Utah found out, Gibson was thrown out of the colony and the Mormons moved to Laie on Oahu. Gibson kept his land.
He tried just about every kind of industry available. The ranching, sugar and cattle enterprises all failed. (Gibson eventually moved on to Oahu, where he caused a great stir as King David Kalakaua's adviser, left in disgrace, and died a pauper in San Francisco.)
But Gibson's holdings were never broken up. They were eventually acquired by Charles Gay from Kauai. This is the same family that started the Gay-Robinson sugar plantation and still owns a lot of the Garden Isle's leeward side. Gay surpassed Gibson's property and bought up more and more land.
By the time Hawaii became a territory, most of the island was his. The consolidation did not go unnoticed. When the territorial government attempted to give to Gay what little acreage on the island that did not belong to him (the land was already leased to him), a dissenting Honolulu councilman tried to intervene with a lawsuit. He took his case to the Supreme Court of the United States and lost.
With no real opposition in government or from anyone else, virtually the entire island fell under the ownership of a single corporate entity. It's been that way ever since. And every time the island changed hands from one wealthy landowner to another, everyone speculated what would become of Lanai. From the Gay family and its ranching enterprise, the Dole Pineapple Co. took over in the 1920s.
Pineapple dominated the island for nearly 70 years. The coastal towns with roots predating Western contact were abandoned. The population was concentrated into a single city in the middle of the island, and families from all over the world were shipped in to work.
Every aspect of life on Lanai was overseen by the company. Workers lived in homes owned by the company. Recreational facilities, parks, movie theaters and the gym were built and owned by the company. It was a closed company town, not unlike the mining towns in West Virginia.
Right around the time of statehood in the early 1950s, Lanai's workforce went on strike, against the advice of their union. Pineapples rotted in the fields while workers held out by living off the land. After months of holding out, the workers turned the island into a putrid-smelling wasteland. The crop was lost and the company gave in to just about every one of the union's demands at the bargaining table. It was a complete victory for workers.
Those days are over. The pineapple fields have given way to overgrown savannas. The paths of red dirt still snake through the high plain of the island, but there isn't much evidence left of the once-dominant fruit. Like the concrete dock and the hidden foundations of houses, churches and edifices along
Lanai's coast, the pineapple has receded into Lanai's landscape. Fewer and fewer people can remember when Lanai was the Pineapple Island.
A new industry controls the island. Two resorts may have made the island an elite tourist destination, but Lanai City is still very much a company town. Nearly all residents work for the hotel company and if they don't, they depend on its guests for business.
Larry Ellison has managed to make the already privately owned island even more private and exclusive. He bought the island, the water system, and most recently an airline company. Our mayor spent most of his State of the County speech talking about hanging out with him on his private yacht.
There may be changes coming for the island, but it's apparent that the island will remain privately owned and a single industry will continue to dictate the fate of its inhabitants, just as it's done for more than a hundred years.
- July 26, 2013

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