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$25 million project could operate by January

By Haidee V. Eugenio SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Oct. 9, 2009) – Another group of investors is pumping money into a casino project on Rota but, unlike other entities, the Rota Treasure Island Corp. has already filed an application for a license to operate a casino project worth at least $25 million on the island.

Masahiro Watanabe, president of Rota Treasure Island Corp., yesterday said if the Rota Casino Gaming Commission approves soon the application they filed last week, the company will be able to open the initial 200-machine casino as early as January 2010.

In a news briefing yesterday in the governor's conference room on Capital Hill, Watanabe said he also plans to either buy their own aircraft to transport casino customers to and from Rota and Guam or Saipan, as well as operate charter flights from Japan which will be their main market and other destinations.

Watanabe, through a translator, said the current roundtrip air fare of $229 between Saipan and Rota and Rota and Guam will be lowered to only about $100 once Rota Treasure Island Corp. begins transportation services.

The initial investment in the casino project is $5 million.

Today, Gov. Benigno R. Fitial is set to meet with members of the Rota Casino Gaming Commission to talk about ways to help investors realize their plans on Rota.

Rota Treasure Island Corp.'s announcement yesterday of its $25- million casino project and pending application came exactly a week after another investor-the new owner of Rota Resort & Country Club-said it will be building a $10-million casino and a $1-million water bottling facility.

On Thursday last week, Hee Kyun Cho, owner of Rota Resort & Country Club, said he has invested close to $10 million to take over ownership of the biggest hotel on Rota. He also said the bottling water facility may open as early as February or March 2010, employing 10 new individuals on Rota and will also export bottled water to Japan, Korea, and other destinations.

Cho said they will start with a boutique casino style and expand it at a later time. The company, however, has yet to file an application with the Rota Casino and Gaming Commission for a casino license.

Watanabe, for his part, said they will be renovating and expanding the Rota Hotel in Sunton to turn it into a world-class casino that will also feature a theme park, shopping, entertainment, and dining establishments.

But Rota Hotel is still negotiating with Rota Treasure Island Corp. on whether to sell the hotel or enter into a shared ownership deal.

Rota Treasure Island Corp. is not only the first on Rota to apply for a casino license, but is also the first group of Japanese investors to go into the casino industry on Rota and Tinian.

Other major casino investors planning to operate on Rota and Tinian are either Chinese or Koreans. The CNMI's only operating casino-Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino-is a Chinese investment.

Fitial, in a statement yesterday, welcomed the entry of Rota Treasure Island Corp. which will also establish transportation services to bring visitors to Rota by plane and jet-hydrofoil.

He said the new gaming resort project reportedly has the support of the Rota municipal government and the Rota legislative delegation.

"I am upbeat about the economic possibilities on Rota. Rota's attractive natural environment, local culture, and close proximity to U.S. military bases in Guam may maximize Rota's gaming industry opportunities, but we need to make sure we do it right with the full support of the people of Rota," Fitial said.

Watanabe said he and two other Japanese investors, whom he declined to name at this time, are pumping money into the casino project.

Watanabe has 12 years experience in casino junket in which he transports groups of high-stake casino gamblers from Japan to Las Vegas, Nevada, Bahamas, Philippines, Korea, and other casino destinations. He said for years, he has also been bringing casino customers to Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino.

"I am confident that I will be able to bring customers to my own casino because I have my own customers from Japan," he said through a translator. He said he will also be bringing in tourists from Korea and Guam to Rota.

The company plans to hire some 70 employees, with some 80 percent of them local residents.

Watanabe, who is based in Tokyo and who has offices in Sendai and Osaka, has been in the insurance and information technology business for 20 years, while his investor-partners are also into credit and financial security industry.

Former Gov. Froilan Tenorio, who is a proponent of casino operation on Saipan, yesterday said investors like Rota Treasure Island Corp. "are exactly what we need not only on Rota but also on Saipan and Tinian."

"This is a great step toward economic recovery not only of Rota but the whole of the CNMI," said Tenorio, who is running for a House seat in the Nov. 7 elections.

Casino operation is not allowed on Saipan; only on Rota and Tinian.

From 1991 to 2003, Rota tried four times to allow casino operation without success through public initiative.

However, in November 2007, Rota voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of the public initiative to allow casino gaming. 85 percent of the votes cast voted in favor of the initiative, now known as the Rota Casino Act of 2007.

The act provides for the establishment of a Rota Casino Gaming Commission which has five members appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Rota Municipal Council.

Tenorio also said that the multi-billion-dollar military buildup on Guam will boost the CNMI's casino and tourism industry.

Despite pronouncements of casino plans in the CNMI for years, only Tinian Dynasty Hotel and Casino has so far opened since 10 years ago.

Other investors on Tinian have either broke ground or still applying for permits and licenses.

In July, for example, Neo Gold Wings Paradise held a groundbreaking for its estimated $1-billion casino hotel and resort project on Tinian. Among the reported investment partners is billionaire Stanley Ho, who controls over a dozen casinos in Macau.

Bridge Investment Group, meanwhile, halted construction at its Tinian site because of uncertainties involving the federalization of CNMI immigration and the exclusion of its main target market-Chinese, along with Russian tourists-from the joint visa waiver program.

Another investor, Marianas Resort Development Corp., plans to build the $300-million Matua Bay Resort on Tinian.

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