A Tale of Two Islands
I recently had the chance to visit the “outer” Hawaiian islands of Lana’i and Moloka’i on professional business, which allows me to observe and study in detail inconspicuous parts of these places that only the farmers, hunters, construction workers and groundskeepers get to fully appreciate, but that’s another story for another time. First 2.5 days were on Lana’i, which used to be solely owned in its entirety by Dole Pineapple, where for most of the 20th Century it almost completely supplied the world’s crop of pineapples and its juice. If you visited or have seen pictures of this island in its heyday, it was a site to behold: rows and rows of dense, neatly planted dark green pineapple plants stretching off into vistas of the blue Pacific. Now, it’s mostly back to tall grass and various weeds, like parts of west Texas without the goats or cattle, with bits of black plastic scattered about in the red soil as the last clues of pineapple cultivation.
The island is still privately owned, lately by the multi-billionaire Rupert Murdock of Fox News and other fame. Much money still flows into and out of the island, but now the locals, or a portion of the descendants of the original pineapple plantation workers, now retired, almost exclusively work for the tourist industry.
Lana’i has two 5-star, elite-class resort hotels, the Lodge at Koele, famous as the site of multi-billionaire geek Bill and Melinda Gate’s rather exclusive wedding (they reserved the entire island for the week). The Lodge is just north of the one and only town of Lana’i City (a joke?) which is so small it reminds one of an old medieval European or Latin American town with one large tree-lined and filled square and narrow, mostly paved streets running off in all compass directions, into the “suburbs” of planned plantation housing. Shade is provided by rows of Norfolk pines, planted more than 80 years ago and now really big and tall.
More Norfolk pines have been planted along the 2-lane road that leads to town from the small airport and down slope to the second resort, the former Menele Bay Hotel, now a Four Seasons Resort, on the coast. Ground water that I presume once grew pineapples now is applied amply and apparently daily to this area, just back from the sea cliffs, in a relatively windless and hot, dry part of the island. These resorts both possess “world class” golf courses and are by design entirely self-contained as far as tourist needs. If you have to ask how much the rooms cost, then you probably can’t afford to stay there, and should instead opt for the quaint Hotel Lana’i or a B&B or house rental in the “city”.
So, let’s call this island an apparent success in this tale of two outer islands, perhaps serving as a model for the invisible hand of continued economic success and adaptation via the “free” enterprise capitalist system. The other end of the continuum is the former plantation town of Maunaloa, on western Moloka’i. Interestingly, both Lana’i and western Moloka’i started out as successful pineapple plantations, and the contracted workers were accommodated in the company-owned towns of Lana’i City and Maunaloa.
Pineapple in the US went from private and profitable to private and government subsidized, in the form of tariffs and other federal and state economic relief until the 1980s, when globalization finally did in the highly efficient but now unprofitable US operations. The American Dream of bettering the next generation drove off the offspring of the original plantation workers, to college and professional careers, and slowly raised the wages of a graying worker population above the essentially slave-labor wages of the Philippines and other foreign countries that had been the last source of imported plantation labor to the US and Hawaii.
Enter the Moloka’i Ranch, Inc., with big plans for west Moloka’i along the lines of the resorts on Lana’i. They restored the old plantation town of Maunaloa, added their own Lodge, on a much humbler scale, but at the same time added a cinema plus various shops and restaurants, a little “main street” town nestled on top of an extinct shield volcano centrally located atop the vast expanse of dry, brown and windy western Moloka’i. On the northwest coast, facing my home on eastern Oahu, across the 20+ mile expanse of the Moloka’i Channel, the ranch built another resort plus golf course, on a site with surrounding condominiums and townhouses, a bridle trail, beautiful natural coral sand beaches, and actually raised cattle and goats, plus the occasional exotic giraffe and llama. Times were good.
Then times got tough. The original business plan for west Moloka’i never caught the imagination of the elite or perhaps not so elite and wealthy tourist class, as did Lana’i. The cattle made some money, but not enough to sustain their massive investment without tourism. So, then the cost cutting began: first, they closed the coastal resort, then the golf course. Now, a visit there reveals the only business displaying OPEN signs are apparently hopeless real estate agencies, with boarded-up windows on the resort buildings, weeds growing in the parking lot, all surrounded by a sea of condos and townhouses, with some occupied by locals that must now drive for miles to find an operating golf course or a restaurant, or a grocery store or gas station. Parked cars with long-term canvas covers line the mostly empty lots. Shades of a ghost town in the making.
The apparent final blow occurred last April. The latest owners, a Korean investment company, announced a plan to build a gated community of expensive condos on one of the better fishing coasts of the property. The local Moloka’i community, with fishing as either an occupation or a cherished hobby, objected strongly, though not violently. Today one sees hand-painted signs in front yards around the island proclaiming “Save _____”. And, they “won”; the company retreated from the plan. They also announced they were closing the town of Manualoa, effective 30 April 2008.
So, there’s the town, with all the principal business buildings along main street, wood paneling nicely painted in plantation dark green with white trim, closed permanently, unpainted plywood covering the windows and doors. The marquee on the closed cinema reads, “Closed 30 April 2008. Thank you Moloka’i.” Moron like Fuck you Moloka’i. The company sold the surrounding plantation houses plus land for additional development to the locals, at what appeared to be bargain rates, but they were unaware of the company’s ability and willingness to pull the plug on the town, a virtual community to them, if the company did not get their way.
It was, to quote the company: “strictly a business decision”. Now, townsfolk must commute over 20 miles into Kanakakai for gas, or most other supplies not found in the remaining general store, which looked rather meager and pricy. I didn’t have time to take a poll, so I can only say the locals I met seemed resigned to their fate.
The latest blow is the threat by the company to cut off the town’s water supply. No doubt another “business decision”. The state is coming to the town’s rescue with an injunction and a pending lawsuit to make them keep this vital supply open.
So what does this portend for sleepy little Lana’i, seemingly so peaceful and secure? And who wants to get in on the cheap real estate deals now offered on west Moloka’i and give a try at living in a Post-PO world? Gotta love that capitalism and the global economy, so good to all the folks over the years.
Still yet, some horses and a buggy, and a local “doc” to visit, maybe a good sailboat and some supplemental shore fishing, deer/pig hunting on east Moloka’i, humm….Gunsmoke, the reality.
[originally posted August 4th]
[Find Globe article circa 9.15]