Variations | Once upon a time

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WHEN the CNMI government convened a two-day, federally funded economic conference in March 1999, the islands were in the midst of an economic slowdown caused by the Asian currency crisis.

Many believed, however, that it would be “temporary” like the downturn that the CNMI experienced when Japan’s “bubble economy” burst in the early 1990s.

Moreover, in 1999, the CNMI still possessed a vital economic tool that was crucial to its continued development and growth — local control over immigration and minimum wage. And no one, of course, anticipated the catastrophes that would unfold in the following years: 9/11, SARS, bird flu, the JAL pullout, among them. The federalization of CNMI immigration and minimum wage, signed into law in May 2008, was quite probably the coup de grace.

But in the spring of 1999, the main concern for many people was the Y2K or the millennium bug — and not unforeseen events far into the future. As for the local economy, Jack Peters, the director of NMC’s Business Development Center, told the economic conference participants that the ongoing economic planning and meetings and consultations “are improving our chances of a successful response or remedy.”

However, 14 long years would pass before the local economy finally showed signs of life. And it was because of two factors that, in 1999, many would assume were unthinkable: China’s emergence as the CNMI’s other major tourism market; and the legalization of casino gaming on Saipan.

In his remarks at the 1999 economic conference, Gov. Pedro “Teno” Pangelinan  Tenorio noted that a similar gathering was held several years ago, “when the Northern Marianas was experiencing rapid economic growth and every part of the local economy was growing at 16% per year, compared to zero growth today.” Although the local economic situation was “due to external factors beyond our control…we cannot just sit back and wait. We cannot afford to watch the tide go in and the tide go out and do nothing.” He said his administration, which was sworn into office in Jan. 1998, was “working very hard…and doing everything possible to address the immediate crisis….” He thanked the Legislature for supporting ongoing efforts to stimulate the economy, and commended his economic recovery and revitalization committees that were helping his administration “seek viable solutions.”

It was all hands on deck with a battle-tested, hard-working and well-respected governor at the helm.

Among other things, Governor Teno formed task force committees on finance and information technology to prepare the CNMI’s “full participation in this new ‘invisible’ economic sector.” He said the free trade zone committee, for its part, was drawing up new incentives to “diversify our economy through capital intensive, environmental friendly industry.” As for the tourism and entertainment committees, they were “evaluating programs and plans to further enhance our visitor industry…. They will also identify new attractions for potential private investments and recommend how the government can help.”

Another committee was created to focus on agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture. This committee would “suggest opening up new areas for development and cultivation while continuing to protect and preserve our most valuable resource — our environment.”

Governor Teno said his administration, through the aviation committee, was “working to increase the number of air carriers and seating capacity to our island,” and had prioritized infrastructure projects worth $154 million (equivalent to about $240 million today).

He mentioned a major revitalization plan for the Garapan tourist district, involving “more attractions, including a sound and light show featuring island dances within an island convention and cultural center.”

He said he had also received “suggestions for an aquarium and an underwater marine observatory. Another idea is a scenic miniature railway such as a replica of the old sugar train, and aerial cable car to Mt. Tapochau.”

Governor Teno said Rota “has already taken the initiative on its efforts toward eco-tourism, development of its parks, and agriculture. Tinian has its budding casino industry, and is now working hard to attract supporting industries, including golf course, hotels and recreational facilities. The Northern Islands is looking into a dive and sport fishing facility.”

The people of the CNMI, he added, “want reliable power and water…excellent education opportunities for our youth, adequate health services, public safety and meaningful employment opportunities for our citizens…. We…want protection of our cultural identify and natural environment. We want more local entrepreneurs…and we want increased U.S. investment. To achieve these we need to develop a diversified economy.”

Twenty-one years ago.

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