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Tiny Island Revamped : Lanai: From Plantation to Playground

February 25, 1988|TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writer

LANAI CITY, Hawaii — For the last 66 years, since James Dole bought Lanai and carved the tiny island into neat, golden rows of pineapple, little has changed.

A whistle still tells plantation workers when to get up, when to come to the fields, when to take their siestas, when to go home. People leave doors unlocked and keys in ignitions. The favorite beach is a paradise-perfect crescent of sand soft as talcum, fringed with coconut palms facing a translucent sea.

But now, bulldozers growl and saws whine over the slap of waves at Hulopoe Beach. Trees are coming down, a new recreation center has been built with Lanai's first swimming pool. Before long hotels, parking lots, movie-star mansions, sculptured hedges, a refurbished marketplace and even a lawn bowling green will be sprouting.

Embrace Change

Many islanders publicly embrace the change that will nearly quintuple the 2,100 population over the next decade, saying Los Angeles developer David Murdock's plans for his new island will invigorate Lanai, giving its young a reason to stay.

But others quietly resent the face-lift, arguing that a place so small cannot support a dream so big.

"The idea obviously is to look for the rich and famous," said Bob Oda, Murdock's vice-president in charge of Lanai development. He keeps a scale-model future Lanai under glass at his office, where he talks excitedly about the millions Murdock will spend turning a plantation into a playground.

Already the dusty old town with the grandiose name of Lanai City is being put to the white-glove test.

Murdock had junked cars and other unsightly rubbish removed from Lanai for free. And as Lanai emerged buffed and polished and painted and trimmed, many islanders took it as a sign that the future, too, would be bright. Others were not so sure.

'Get Out Lawn Mowers'

"He came in and literally painted the flowers white," scoffed one resident. "You always know when Mr. Murdock is coming to town because they get out the lawn mowers, paint the signs and put out potted plants.

"He trimmed the mesquite into bonsai and closed the beach for a private picnic with linens and china."

Fumed another: "He's cutting down all the cypress. He has a thing about cypress. I'm going to plant 20 in my front yard just to spite him."

But Murdock also gave Lanai a $3-million recreation center with tennis courts, a pool, track, gymnasium, playground equipment and a football field, even though Lanai has no football team.

"Definitely there will be some adjustment, but I don't think it'll be as bad as some think," said Goro Hokama, who has represented Lanai on the Maui County Council for 34 years. "A youngster coming up will have more choices, more exposure," he said. "They won't be as secluded as we were."

Helen Pascua, a 30-year-old mother who emigrated from the Philippines four years ago and holds two part-time jobs, welcomes the changes.

"I like it. I know most people don't," she said, "but it's about time. I'd like to work for the hotels."

Oda insists the changes won't be drastic.

Old Buildings Targeted

"We're going to maintain the same plantation atmosphere," he promised, outlining plans to "polish up downtown" by tearing down some old buildings and renovating the survivors.

"You won't find strip malls in Lanai. It's not going to be honky-tonky or anything," he said. "We just want to create a little interest for visitors."

With a view of booming Maui to the east, Lanai can see clearly what creating too much interest will bring--high-rise hotels, traffic jams and tourists splayed freckle-to-freckle on the beaches.

On the other side, literally, Lanai also can see the consequences of spurning development, a decision neighboring Molokai made only to suffer high unemployment when its pineapple industry collapsed.

But unlike their neighbors, Lanaians don't really control their island's destiny. They may belong to Lanai but Lanai does not belong to them. And if they don't like it, as one resident noted, "it's not as if we can pack up the station wagon and just move 100 miles up a freeway to another town."

Belongs to Dole Firm

Lanai, at least 98% of it, belongs to Castle & Cooke, parent company of Dole, which turned the 141-square-mile speck of ranchland into--as the sign at the airstrip breathlessly proclaims--"Lanai, The Pineapple Island, The World's Premier Pineapple Plantation, Grower of Famous Dole Products."

But recent times have not been as expansive as the sign suggests, leaving Castle & Cooke deeply in debt. In July, 1985, Murdock's New York-based Flexi-Van Corp. paid $337 million to merge with Castle & Cooke, making Murdock chairman of the board and chief executive officer. He also owns 25% of the new company. With that comes the power to redesign both the life style and landscape of Lanai.

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