I write this in my personal capacity as a concerned citizen.
I am uneasy about the economic path we have embarked upon in the Northern Marianas. When I look carefully at the many changes taking place so rapidly in our community, and when I consider the path that lies ahead, I worry.
After years of what seemed like economic free fall, the Commonwealth is now awash in money. We do not know where all of it is coming from—and a few people are profiting far more handsomely than most. Ethical lines—the boundaries between business interests and public service—have begun to blur.
And the local economy appears to be overheating. Land is being grabbed up by a handful of corporations and major developments are in various stages of promise, planning, or construction
A $10-billion casino resort on Rota. A $7-billion casino resort on Saipan. Three new casino resorts on Tinian valued at $4 billion, $1.2 billion, and $300 million, respectively. A $675-million sky bridge linking Tinian to Saipan. A $130-million resort in San Antonio, a $46-million hotel on Capitol Hill, a $50-million transformation of a derelict hotel in Achugao into yet another gaming resort, a $30-million renovation for a cruise ship resort in San Roque.
We are talking about a lot of money. By comparison, consider the Wharf revitalization project underway in Washington, D.C. Located on prime real estate in one of the most expensive cities in the nation, the redevelopment project spans 27 acres of land and 50 acres of water, and encompasses plans for a vibrant, world-class, waterfront community with office spaces, residential condos and apartments, hotels, restaurants, shops, entertainment, and many other amenities.
The Wharf project, as grand and elegant as it is, is valued at $2 billion.
The projects proposed for the Northern Marianas that I have mentioned are together valued at an astounding $23 billion.
And we must ask ourselves, what does that really mean for us? Do we even need $23 billion? To what end? At what price?
How much development is enough for us?
We may be on the verge of another economic boom, but it is on a scale unlike anything we have seen before in the Northern Marianas. We should not delude ourselves into thinking that we will be able to absorb $23 billion without fundamentally and forever changing who we are as a people, as a community. And the change, I fear, will not be for the better.
I worry that we are ill prepared to manage the consequences of so much development. Our environment, our infrastructure, our water resources, our law enforcement, hospital, schools, and social services—can barely accommodate the development we have now.
We are already being told we do not have a sufficient labor pool to support this economic revival. Some business interests and political leaders insist that the Commonwealth will need to import 12,000-35,000 workers far into the future. This translates into a staggering total population growth of 22-65 percent from today.
To fill all the rooms in all the existing and proposed hotels at maximum capacity, the Commonwealth would have to bring in 2 million visitors a year. We would have to rebuild to expand the airports, and dramatically upgrade our water, wastewater, and power utilities.
Can our islands, our infrastructure and our resources, really sustain that many more people? Can our way of life endure and adapt to accommodate the changes?
I think we need to pause. I think we need time to breathe a little, and reflect on the future we are creating—to look around and take in the present landscape, and look ahead at the horizon for the long view.
What really matters to us, the people of the Northern Marianas? To me, it is family. It is decent jobs and honest work so that we can support our families. It is opportunities for our children to pursue a high quality education and realize their dreams. It is having places of sanctuary, beauty, and history so that we can enjoy our time with our families, and our visitors can enjoy time with theirs. It is a safe and healthy community for us all.
To others, it may mean something different. But if economic development does not reflect our values as a community, or bring us closer to the quality of life we desire for ourselves and our families, then why are we doing it? If the development is not for us, then what—or whom—is it for?
I do not pretend to have all the answers. But I think it is important to ask these questions and begin to have a truthful conversation with each other about where we are headed as a commonwealth. If it is not a direction we want, then we must speak up and change course. Easier said than done, I know—but the consequences of doing nothing may be much, much worse.
At the end of the day, these islands, our families, and our sense of place in the world are all that we have—and all that truly matter.
Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan is the CNMI’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives