Digital Media Center
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Gate 61
920 Paul Bryant Drive
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0370
(800) 654-4262

© 2024 Alabama Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Register for Glenn Miller Tickets in Mobile on May 30.

A billionaire's land purchases in rural Hawaii have locals worried

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Plenty of tech billionaires own land in Hawaii, mostly coastal mansions in gated communities. But billionaire Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has been buying property in a rural residential town. Waimea sits in the mountains of Hawaii's Big Island. It's home to a large population of native Hawaiians, and it's mostly working class. Locals have been watching as Benioff has bought hundreds of acres in a place that's already short on housing. NPR reporter Dara Kerr spoke to 18 locals there and went on a winding reporting journey that took her into one of the houses Benioff owns to speak with the man himself about what he's been doing with all that land. Hey, Dara.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: You know, reporters are normally the ones digging up stories, but I understand this one came to you. Tell me about how you started working on the story.

KERR: So I know Waimea well. I went to elementary school there for a bit as a kid, and my family has long ties to this town. This time, when I was there, the big talk around town was this land being bought by Benioff. On the island, everyone knows he has this mansion down by the beach, but since the pandemic began, people were saying he went on a buying spree up in Waimea. And there was all this mystery and secrecy about what was going on. Here's how a resident, Mike Donoho, put it.

MIKE DONOHO: A wealthy individual comes in, and they acquire multiple properties. And, you know, the people that have been there for quite a while, they get a little nervous about that.

DETROW: And now it's something like 600 acres in this town. Give us a sense of what Waimea is like.

KERR: It's a cattle ranching town and is known as the birthplace of the Hawaiian cowboy, who are known as the paniolo. Since the pandemic, it's gotten really expensive to live in Waimea, with housing prices up nearly 90%.

DETROW: You said you talked to 18 people around the town. Interestingly, almost none of them wanted their names shared. Why was that?

KERR: So there's this saying in small-town Hawaii called no talk stink. It basically means you don't criticize people in public. I ran into a lot of no talk stink in my reporting. And people are also just really nervous to speak with me on the record and possibly get on Benioff's wrong side. He holds a lot of sway. He knows town leaders and government officials. Waimea is a small town, and he's a powerful person.

DETROW: For people who aren't tech reporters and aren't as familiar with Marc Benioff, what's his reputation in the tech world?

KERR: Benioff has cultivated this image of himself as a benevolent billionaire. Besides Salesforce, he also owns Time magazine and the messaging app Slack. And he has this reputation of giving away a lot of money. In San Francisco, where he's from, his name is on several hospitals he's donated to. He's also seen as this fun guy who hangs out with rock stars. He's hosted the frontman for Metallica in Hawaii. He's also very much known for his love of Hawaii. Here's him describing his feelings for Hawaii.

MARC BENIOFF: I fell in love with the people, what we call here in Hawaii ohana. I fell in love with the land, what we call aina. And of course, I fell in love with the aloha spirit.

DETROW: And that's a clip there from your interview with him. You were in the process of reporting on this. And he got word you were poking around town, and he reached out to you. Is that right?

KERR: That's exactly what happened. And that's when I got to know a different side to Marc Benioff. For one thing, he started texting me all the time. The focus of his texts were all about the philanthropy that he's doing in Hawaii. And without my asking, he also connected me with people who know about his donations so I could talk to them. The whole thing really felt like a pressure campaign.

After a few weeks of us texting, I went back to Hawaii for an in-person interview, but a couple of days before I met him in person, a colleague at NPR told me he got a text from Benioff. Benioff was asking for intel on my story.

Then that same day, Benioff called me and demanded to know the title of my story. As you know, Scott, that's not something we do in the news business. And towards the end of that phone call, Benioff indicated he knew the exact part of the island where I was staying at my family's house. When I asked how he knew, he said, it's my job. You have a job, and I have a job. And that just - it really unnerved me.

DETROW: Yeah, that makes sense. So you finally met in person. How did it go?

KERR: For most of my interview, when I asked why he was buying in Waimea, he would deflect his answers and talk about his philanthropy. And during my interview, I was really trying to get to the bottom of why all the secrecy and why the anonymous LLCs.

DETROW: And let's just peel that back a little bit because this is a key part of the story. Tell us how you found out that he was behind these LLCs behind these purchases.

KERR: So I started scouring county property records looking for clues, and I found more than 30 land parcels with the same mailing address in the San Francisco Bay area. That was my main clue. These parcels were bought under six separate anonymous LLCs. It's common for wealthy people and corporations to want to keep their land purchases private. There's no law against it, but it can make it really hard to figure out who is behind large land purchases. Benioff told me that his anonymity was always to preserve the privacy of his family.

DETROW: You said before that he kept wanting to turn the interview to his philanthropy. It is fair to say, though, he's given away a lot of money and land to the local community, right?

KERR: Yes. He's donated a lot across all of Hawaii. On the Big Island, he's given millions to the fire department and search and rescue, and he's given to environmental projects and the public and private schools. He's also donated five parcels of land to an affordable housing project near Waimea. The plan is to build about 40 affordable homes there. But once I got a better picture of the scope of what he bought, I could see it wasn't all about philanthropy. When I looked at all of his properties, the vast majority of what he's bought seems just to be for him and his family, which, in total, is about 24 parcels of land.

DETROW: And just to bring this all back, it's certainly nothing new for tech billionaires to be buying land in Hawaii. But there are bigger questions here of how you can better protect locals from extremely wealthy people buying up what sounds like tons and tons and tons of land.

KERR: Yeah. The people in Waimea still seem really concerned. More Hawaiians live outside Hawaii now than on the islands. And in Waimea, locals worry this trend will continue as the cost of living skyrockets. Over the past few years, Benioff has taken a lot of land off the market. So while people may appreciate his donations, many locals are scared they could be priced out of this place that has been their home for generations. There are no laws against buying land, so it's a tough situation. One person I spoke to told me, at what point does Hawaii not become Hawaii anymore if no Hawaiians are here?

DETROW: That's NPR reporter Dara Kerr. Thank you so much.

KERR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LCD SOUNDSYSTEM SONG, "YOU WANTED A HIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.
News from Alabama Public Radio is a public service in association with the University of Alabama. We depend on your help to keep our programming on the air and online. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.