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Bigger facility, pushed by Delegate Sablan, to help economy

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Jan. 17, 2012) - The U.S. Department of Defense is expected to release in the next few months U.S. Congress-approved funds for the construction of a substantially bigger troop store than the existing facility on Saipan at a cost of $2.44 million, Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP) told lawmakers.

Sablan said construction could begin as early as this summer and be completed within a year.

Some veterans and government officials interviewed yesterday said they welcome the substantial troop store expansion.

The current Army and Air Force Exchange Service, or AAFES, store is only 1,120 square feet and was built in 1987.

"That is good news. That would be very advantageous for us and family who go there to buy goods. That will give more variety of goods because right now they have limited items and limited variety. And as you know, the goods available there are sold at much lower prices because they're not taxed, and that is also helping a lot of the members and their families," retired U.S. Army sergeant major Jesus C. Muna told Saipan Tribune yesterday.

Muna, now director of the Division of Customs Service, entered the U.S. Army in July 1967 and was stationed in Vietnam in 1968. He also saw action in Iraq in Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991. He retired in July 1992.

Muna is just one of the approximately 3,400 Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard personnel, service veterans and family members in the CNMI who depend upon the AAFES troop store for consumer goods.

"These men and women have made substantial sacrifice for their country and they deserve our continuing support," Sablan said in a Jan. 11 letter to Sen. Ralph Torres (R-Saipan) and Rep. Joseph Palacios (R-Saipan).

Torres, in a separate interview yesterday, said the troop store's expansion is just one of the ways to show those who served and are serving that "we take care of their needs."

He and Palacios separately met with Sablan on the troop store expansion, as well as on other issues.

"The construction of a bigger facility will also help the economy because it will create jobs and will contribute to business gross revenue tax. I welcome it. Most of all, it provided incentives especially to young ones who are in the Reserve or now serving or are planning to serve," he said.

Torres thanked Sablan for his efforts in making this project a reality. The senator also said he will continue to ask the delegate to support the establishment of at least a Veterans Affairs clinic-if not a hospital-in the CNMI.

Palacios, a veteran himself, said last night that he has been pushing for the expansion of the troop store since 2008.

"I'm glad that Kilili was able to continue pushing for it. It would be three times bigger but I was hoping it could be a lot bigger," he said.

Palacios, a freshman lawmaker, entered the U.S. Army in December 1976 and retired in July 2006 as a sergeant first class.

Feasibility study

Sablan has been working on the improvement and expansion of the existing AAFES troop store on Saipan for some time now, and those eligible to buy from the troop store will soon see the results.

In early 2010, as part of the congressional process for putting together the annual National Defense Authorization Act, Sablan requested that a formal study be authorized in the law to ascertain the economic feasibility of expanding the Saipan troop store.

"I had heard from many of those who are eligible to use the facility that they were not satisfied with the quality, selection and availability of merchandise, and that prices are substantially higher than at AAFES stores in other areas. I understood, however, that there would need to be a formal study in order to take concrete action on these complaints," Sablan told lawmakers.

The U.S. House Armed Services Committee honored Sablan's request and authorized the study in the 2011 NDAA, which President Barack Obama signed as Public Law 111-383 on Jan. 8, 2011.

The Department of Defense reported back to Congress in August 2011, and agreed there was a need to improve the AAFES services in the CNMI, and that it would be economically feasible to do so.

"The Department proposed construction of a new 5,000 square-foot troop store at a cost of $2.44 million. The existing facility in Puerto Rico, which was constructed in 1987, is only 1,120 square feet in area. So the proposed store was to be a substantial expansion," Sablan told Torres and Palacios.

In late 2011, the U.S. House and Senate Armed Services Committees authorized the construction based on the study recommendation.

"Funds, which Congress has already made available for AAFES projects, are scheduled to be released by the Secretary of Defense in the next few months, at which point AAFES will solicit bids. I understand that construction could begin as early as this summer and be completed within a year," Sablan added.

Gasoline program

But while the feasibility study recommended expansion of the troop store, it did not recommend the installation of gas pumps at the Puerto Rico facility on Saipan.

Sablan said the feasibility study considered installation of gas pumps on Saipan but the high construction cost, pricing regulations and relatively small size of the eligible customer base led to the conclusion that the sale of gasoline would have a negative rate of return and was not economically viable at this time.

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