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    Tuesday, April 24, 2018-9:42:53P.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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Guam senator says civilian projects should get visa relief too

HAGÅTÑA — While foreign-worker visa relief for military buildup-related projects on Guam may ease the labor crisis on island, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sen Frank Aguon said civilian construction outside the fence should also get a similar accommodation.

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which was signed into law last week, provides the H-2B national visa-cap exemption for Guam from 2019 to 2023, allowing the issuance of 4,000 visas per year. However, the visa-cap exemption applies only to the $354.6 million worth of defense projects appropriated under the NDAA.

“There needs to be a commitment to improving the quality of life for everyone who calls Guam home,” said Aguon, chairman of the legislative committee on the military buildup.

“While the 2018 NDAA addresses the shortage of skilled construction workers on Guam, there should also be something done to accommodate the local infrastructure as the growth in the community from the military build-up will bring additional strain,” he added.

Besides the NDAA-funded 2018 projects, the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment last month awarded the Government of Guam two grants, totaling $129.9 million for civilian infrastructure projects related to the realignment of Marines to Guam.

The grants, funded through 2017 NDAA, have been awarded to the Office of the Governor ($12 million) for the final planning and design, program and construction management services, and construction of a Guam Cultural Repository; and the Guam Waterworks Authority ($117.9 million) for upgrades to the Northern District Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Aguon said “there is still more that needs to be done as a collaborative effort toward a mutually beneficial buildup.” He urged the federal government to honor the “One Guam approach,” which is a part the 4 Pillars developed by Secretary of the Navy Robert Work in 2011.

“One Guam, commits to improving the quality of life for both the local and military community through construction improvements and investments to Guam’s infrastructure. The projects would be the result of a combination of requests by the Government of Guam and those identified by the environmental impact study, performed by DoD to study the effects of the build-up,” Aguon said.

“I hope the federal government hears the concerns of the Government of Guam and people of Guam and works to address these concerns and resolve the remaining issues that we have brought to light. The One Guam approach should shape the strategy going forward,” he added.

Despite the federal clampdown on the issuance of foreign-worker visas, the government’s chief economist Gary Hiles, projected the surging construction activity on Guam will drive the island’s continued economic growth in 2018.’

“Investment in new buildings and infrastructure remains high as evidenced by historical and comparative measures of construction levels on Guam,” Hiles said in the 2018 Guam economic outlook report.

In 2016, the government of Guam approved building permits for projects worth a combined $470.8 million. The Department of Defense is expected to award $248.65 million worth of projects in 2017.

“While substantial delays and changes in plans have occurred with the preparations for the Marine Corps relocation from Okinawa to Guam, and challenges remain to be overcome, preparatory work continues to progress,” Hiles’ report said. “Volatility in defense construction activity has been counterbalanced to an extent by strong private and Government of Guam construction activity.”

Civilian projects that are either ongoing or ready for groundbreaking amount to $622.28 million.

About 10 percent of the island’s total employment is in the construction industry.

“It is also a strong leading indicator of the economic activity to come with construction and other employment and activity in the projects as they are completed,” the report said.

Among the big-ticket ongoing civilian projects are the $180-million Tsubaki Hotel, a 26- story 340-room, five-star luxury resort being constructed by P.H.R. Micronesia Ken Corp. and the Emerald Oceanview Park, a $100 million four-tower development built by Core Tech.

A number of major projects are in the planning phase for development. These include the Northgate MarketPlace, a shopping and restaurant complex directly across from Guam Regional Medical City in Dededo which aims to create nearly 300 retail and food-service jobs upon completion. It is funded in part by federal grants through the Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority with a total project cost estimated at $12 million.

Historically, Guam was exempted from the 66,000 H2 visas a year quota nationwide in consideration of the military buildup and the island’s scarce labor pool.

However, since December 2015, the visa-approval rate has gone down to zero. As of this month, the number of H2 workers on island is down to about 89 from 1,463 last year.

According to the U.S. Navy’s environmental-impact statement, the operative number of required workers at the peak of the military buildup is 5,000 people.