After Oracle founder Larry Ellison plunked $300 million to buy his own island, he described his plan to transform Lanai into a "sustainable Eden" as "this really cool 21st-century engineering project." Now, in classic Silicon Valley fashion, Ellison is running the tropical rebrand with the "veneer of egalitarianism," "buzzwords," questionable promises, and non-disclosure agreements, reports The New York Times Magazine.
It's the sort of sweeping challenge that engineering types get giddy over: a full-scale model. Of course, there are actual people living inside Ellison's engineering project — a community being hit by an unimaginable wave of wealth.
Ellison wouldn't talk to the Times, so the magazine interviewed a number of the island's 3,200 residents who turned from awe-struck to ecstatic to hopeful to suspicious about the logistics of turning Lanai into a premier tourist destination—especially when previous pivots under prior executives (a pineapple producer under James Drummond Dole and a tourist center under David Murdock) lapsed into disrepair.
Like a lot of omnipotent forces, Ellison has remained mostly invisible. He has visited Lanai many times — locals told me they can tell he's on the island when they see his yacht hitched in the harbor — but he seems determined to keep a formal distance from the community, shielding himself behind the executive team of Pulama Lanai, the management company he set up to oversee the island's transformation. Although Pulama holds frequent public meetings on Lanai, Ellison has declined to attend any or to address residents directly. Several residents told me that they'd resorted to reading biographies of Ellison to learn more about the man — books that have somewhat disquieting titles like ''Everyone Else Must Fail'' and ''The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison,'' the punch line being: ''God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison.''
The moment the Times got some straight answers, it seemed, sources ended up employed by Ellison's management company Pulama Lanai and under NDA. But not before author Jonathan Mooallem caught wind of that some of the grand plans were already going sideways.
. . . for a local named Gail Allen, the first sign that things had started to go wrong this summer came when Pulama Lanai inexplicably abandoned its renovation of the golf course behind her house, and the weeds and thistles grew waist-high and thick as a broom head, and the fish in the ponds died, and their bodies were left to knock around the algae-clouded edges of the water, floating on their sides.
There was so much work that contractors had to be shuttled in daily or weekly from other islands or relocated. A few off-island construction companies bought up housing in Lanai City in anticipation of winning contracts from Pulama, and the island's independent landlords found they could demand higher rents from the remaining workers. Though the company was busily fixing up cottages to rent out, many displaced locals wound up on Pulama's indeterminably long waiting list for housing, which they believed Pulama employees were bypassing.
At public meetings, Pulama was now explaining that it had given up on the second airport runway and was also downshifting the $27 million makeover of the existing Four Seasons at Manele Bay too: The company would renovate only half the resort this year and was scrambling to finish in time for a large booking in October. (Around town, the event was rumored to be a giant party for Ellison's daughter, Megan.)
According to the Times, there's something familiar about residents once again finding themselves in a company town, employed and under NDA. Ellison once said, "If we do a good job taking care of the locals, the locals will do a good job taking care of our visitors.''
It sounded like the same Silicon Valley philosophy that spawned all the epicurean cafeterias, yoga classes and nap pods on tech-company campuses — amenities designed to keep engineers happy and maximize their productivity. But now, in his office, Kepa Maly [a local cultural historian who ended up employed by Ellison] reminded me that it was a much older model too, and one that Lanai had fared pretty well under. ''It's just like Dole said,'' he said. ''Have happy workers, grow better pineapples.''
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