By Malia Mattoch McManus
HONOLULU, Hawaii (Reuters) - If Oracle billionaire CEO Larry Ellison has his way, the Hawaiian island of Lanai will be transformed into a model for environmentally sustainable enterprise, a prospect that has excited some residents of the tropical paradise.
Ellison bought 98 percent of the 141-square-mile (365-sq-km) Lanai from billionaire David Murdock in June for an undisclosed price. Ellison's Lanai holdings include two resorts and golf courses, a variety of commercial and residential structures and vast acres of former pineapple fields that now rest undeveloped.
Since the June purchase, Lanai's 3,000 residents have been waiting to hear what Ellison, who doesn't currently have a residence on the island, means to do with it. Because he owns the vast majority of land on Lanai, including under businesses that lease space from his holdings, he holds a powerful influence over islanders' lives.
During a Tuesday interview with the news channel CNBC, Ellison addressed his plans for the first time.
"I love Hawaii, and Lanai is a very interesting project. There, what we are going to do is turn Lanai into a model for sustainable enterprise," he said, adding that he owned the water utility and spoke of plans to convert sea water into fresh water.
"Then we have drip irrigation where we are going to have organic farms all over the island. Hopefully we are going to export produce - really the best organic produce to Japan and elsewhere," he added.
He also mentioned plans to help local people start such businesses and said the island would have electric cars. "So it is going to be a little, if you will, laboratory for sustainability in businesses of small scale," he said.
Residents of the island who spoke with Reuters largely welcomed the plan. Alberta de Jetley, owner of Lanai's 18-acre (7-hectare) Bennie's Farm, was one of those who voiced support.
"We have been working towards sustainability for years. We know tourism alone can't sustain Lanai. We all understand this has to happen," de Jetley said.
"I think that will go over really well if he can do it," said resident Caron Green.
Ellison's Lanai representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
RECENT POOL REFURBISHMENT
Ellison, one of the world's richest men, has not had any community meetings with residents. De Jetley said this may be a better approach than Murdock's public meetings which left some residents frustrated when plans didn't materialize.
"Ellison is doing it the right way, not making promises that don't get fulfilled," de Jetley said. She pointed to the recent refurbishment of the island's public pool and recreation center as well as upgrades to workers' housing around the island as proof of Ellison's positive intentions for the island's future.
As a farm owner, de Jetley hopes Ellison's plans for desalinated water could help water-starved Lanai become the state's "breadbasket" and a major fruit supplier to Japan.
Not all residents were so optimistic about how their island might fare under the billionaire's tenure, saying they would judge the plans only once they were in place on the ground, although many of those declined to be quoted by name.
With the high cost of land, water and labor in Hawaii, agriculture faces an uphill battle to be competitive and could require Ellison to continuously subsidize it to make it work on Lanai.
"It's going to take a lot of work and there are challenges," said Jennifer Chirico, executive director of Sustainable Living Institute of Maui.
"It's a long-term strategy but it's exciting. Because of the size of Lanai, with just 3,000 people, this is really an opportunity to test sustainability for islands around the world," she said.
Mary Charles, an owner of the island's smallest hotel, Hotel Lanai, points to Ellison's vast personal wealth as proof he can make it happen. "He has the resources, so if anybody can make it successful he and his team can."
(Editing by Mary Slosson, Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)