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A tech billionaire has quietly bought hundreds of acres in Hawaii. Locals wonder why

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

A mystery has been brewing in a small ranching town in Hawaii. A tech billionaire has been buying hundreds of acres of land there, and no one knows why. In a place where housing is scarce, locals are concerned. NPR tech correspondent Dara Kerr heard about the land buys and has been looking into them.

DARA KERR, BYLINE: I'm here on a grassy, overgrown dirt road flanked by rainforest. It's in the mountain town of Waimea on the Big Island of Hawaii. I'm walking with resident Clemson Lam, and we've reached an impasse on what seems to be a public road.

CLEMSON LAM: I don't know why there's a no trespassing sign on this. It says the area is under 24-hour video surveillance. It's probably taking a picture of me right now.

(LAUGHTER)

KERR: Lam and I take out a map and look at where we are. I show him that a ways down this road are a bunch of properties owned by a San Francisco billionaire.

LAM: Oh, they bought these two also.

KERR: Yeah. Yeah.

LAM: Hmm. Whoa.

KERR: The big question around town is, what is this billionaire up to? Everyone knows it's Marc Benioff. He's the co-founder and CEO of Salesforce, one of the world's largest software companies. The mystery here is, how much land has he bought, and what is he going to do with it? Waimea resident Mike Donoho says, without information, people fill in the blanks.

MIKE DONOHO: I mean, that's kind of how the rumor mill starts, right? You know, the people that have been there for quite a while - they get a little nervous about that.

KERR: Waimea is not the sun-soaked town you envision when you think of Hawaii. It's up in the mountains and is known for its chilly rain and cattle ranching. It has just three stoplights and, as Lam and I find, feral pigs.

LAM: God, those pigs - there's a lot of them.

KERR: Yeah, there's, like, 10.

Plenty of tech billionaires have bought up land in Hawaii - mostly coastal mansions in gated communities. Benioff himself built a beachside mansion on the Big Island 20 years ago. When I meet him later, he says he's always loved Hawaii.

MARC BENIOFF: It's a magical place. It's a place that people come and transform and change, evolve. They experience God. They experience nature. They experience themselves.

KERR: Benioff has said he came up with his vision of Salesforce while swimming with dolphins off the coast here. Hula dancers and Hawaiian drummers perform at Salesforce events, and its annual networking convention in San Francisco often kicks off with a Hawaiian blessing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

KERR: Waimea is a small, working-class town. Its biggest draw is the local farmers market. Since the pandemic began, Benioff started buying a lot more property here - nearly two dozen parcels of land, according to property records. And he bought most of them through anonymous companies known as LLCs.

SUSAN PACE HAMILL: Owners of property hiding behind an LLC - they don't want to be outed as the owner of the property.

KERR: That's Susan Pace Hamill, a law professor at the University of Alabama.

PACE HAMILL: Otherwise, they wouldn't have bothered to set up this wizard-behind-the-curtain strategy.

KERR: Benioff's name isn't on any of these anonymous companies. But when asked, he doesn't dispute he's behind them. The fact that the purchases were secretive has stirred worries that he's building a Salesforce campus. He says that's not the case.

BENIOFF: There's nothing owned by Salesforce in Hawaii. There never will be. Unfortunately, let me tell you the reality of Waimea and why. We wouldn't be able to do it. There isn't enough land, and there isn't enough housing.

KERR: There isn't enough housing in Hawaii. More Native Hawaiians now live outside the state than on the islands. Studies show one of the reasons they're leaving is they can't afford it here.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Your destination is on the right.

KERR: Benioff heard I'd been asking around town, so he invited me to come talk to him in what he calls his Waimea office.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGBACK TONE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning. We're expecting you. I'll go ahead and buzz you through.

KERR: Thanks.

He calls it an office. But as I arrive, I see it's actually a house. I meet one of his assistants.

Nice to meet you. What's your name?

KENDALL #1: Kendall.

KERR: Kendall.

KENDALL #1: Yeah.

KERR: Nice to meet you.

Benioff's other assistant is also named Kendall. And he has two golden retrievers.

KENDALL #2: So you have - let's see here - Brandy and Honey.

BENIOFF: Hi, Dara.

KERR: Hi.

BENIOFF: How are you?

KERR: Good. How are you?

BENIOFF: Do you want to come, and I can just - oh, you're all set up for your...

KERR: I would...

BENIOFF: Do you want to take off your equipment, and I can walk you around and just show you a couple of things?

KERR: Yeah.

We walked past a wall-sized graffiti painting and his collection of antique Hawaiian necklaces. We get settled in his meeting room. One wall is covered in newspaper and magazine articles about him. I ask about the land he bought through the anonymous companies.

So I found a bunch of LLCs that lead back to you. Do you mind if we go through them, and you can say what you're doing with the land?

BENIOFF: I wouldn't be able to go through all of them, but I can tell you we don't hold any major land.

KERR: Benioff has bought hundreds of acres in Waimea. I ask him about other tech billionaires with a lot of land in Hawaii - people like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Oracle's Larry Ellison. He owns almost the entire island of Lanai. Do you see yourself different in what you're doing here in the state?

BENIOFF: Our philosophy has always been different, which is that we're really only here to have a home for our family and then to give.

KERR: Benioff says he's given away about $100 million in Hawaii. After a version of this story published online, he donated another 150 million. He's given to the fire department, hospitals, environmental projects and local schools.

STEPHEN DUNN: We're incredibly grateful.

KERR: That's Stephen Dunn, the head of Parker School. Benioff bought the private school six homes for teachers to live in. He also donated 280 acres to an affordable housing nonprofit. Here's the group's executive director, Keith Kato.

KEITH KATO: So this was like a gift from heaven, so to speak.

KERR: I do some calculations about Benioff's properties. He's donated about one-third of the land parcels to philanthropy. The other two-thirds are for him and his family. Hawaii State Senator Tim Richards worries that, with so many outside buyers purchasing so much land, there could be little left for the locals. The median home price in Waimea topped $1 million in January.

TIM RICHARDS: What young couple can afford that - seriously? The answer is nobody.

KERR: Richards' family has lived in the area for more than a hundred years. He says it's important to look at the problem of housing here from a long-term perspective.

RICHARDS: Why is it so hard for people to make it here? And I think if we don't pay attention to that, we're going to lose the fabric that makes Hawaii Hawaii, which is that next generation coming up.

KERR: That next generation that is trying to hold onto its Hawaiian roots.

Dara Kerr, NPR News, Waimea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLVR'S "BACK N FORTH") 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.