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Community preparing for vital Economic Restoration Summit

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Mar 20, 2009) - Federalization, lack of flights and unreliable infrastructure are but some of the challenges faced by the CNMI even as it tries to identify new industries to fuel the economy, including call centers, aquaculture, alternative energy and educational tourism.

But Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Jim Arenovski said the CNMI should not lose sight of its "bread and butter," which is the tourism industry.

During yesterday’s pre-economic summit public session at the Multi-Purpose Center in Susupe, at least 28 participants shared their views and raised concerns on how to get the CNMI economy going after the demise of the garment industry and a continuous slowdown in tourism. The session was a prelude to the long-awaited Economic Restoration Summit set for April 2 and 3.

Sixto Igisomar of the Department of Commerce said the pre-economic summit was able to draw a diverse crowd to identify alternative industries and challenges.

"People have different views of things but we will try to work things out," he told Saipan Tribune, referring to the concerns of Tinian and Rota participants who feel that casino investments are being ignored as a viable alternative industry.

Via video teleconference, participants from Rota and Tinian took turns reminding the pre-economic summit session that the casino industry needs to be promoted. "Do not ignore casino investments on Rota ad Tinian. Casinos are popping in Asia, in the U.S. We have to promote our casino industry; this is a CNMI industry," a Tinian participant said.

Tinian has only one operating casino-the Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino-which, along with other investors, is being challenged by low tourism arrivals and the impending exclusion of Chinese tourists from the federal visa waiver program and another 50-cent minimum wage increase in May. Rota, which has yet to see a casino investor, faces the same challenges.

The lack of reliable and affordable transportation is also hampering efforts to promote tourism. Arenovski, for example, said the CNMI tourism industry may find it hard to lure military personnel and their families who will be stationed in Guam as a result of the buildup because the airline fares here are so high.

Another Rota participant said the permitting process and "red tape" poses a big challenge to investors.

Lack of infrastructure like roads and reliable power, according to another participant, is hampering future investments in the CNMI.

Sergio Loya, project manager for Management Analysis Inc., said the CNMI government is trying to have infrastructure needs funded by the stimulus package.

"What if we don't get the grants? Then everything falls? Is there a Plan B?" one of the participants asked.

Igisomar, in response, said the CNMI government has identified over US$400 million of "shovel-ready" projects, and is hoping to get at least US$100 million of these projects funded by the US$787 billion stimulus package.

Commerce Secretary Michael Ada earlier said he would be pleased if the CNMI was awarded US$100 million to US$150 million in competitive stimulus grant money.

The pre-economic summit public session which focused on identifying economic opportunities, challenges, potential industries, and proposed changes to regulations that will benefit the CNMI was organized by Commerce and the Commonwealth Development Authority, in partnership with Northern Marianas College and IT&E. The second session will be for government officials on March 26.

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