Transforming Garapan into a jewel

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, in black shirt, and Lt.Gov. Arnold I. Palacios, right, discuss the business improvement district concept with Kodep Uludong, second from left, and Chris Concepcion, third from left, of the Office of Planning and Rick Egged, leftmost, and the author, second from right. (Gregg Hirata)

A spectacular reef and white sand beach, the green expanse of American Memorial Park, the Fiesta Resort and Spa, Hyatt Regency Saipan, and, soon, Imperial Palace, and a renovated DFS Galleria are the anchors that make Garapan a prime visitor destination for Saipan.

These major attractions border the Garapan core, a commercial center in the heart of the city. While restaurants, bars, and shops ring much of the core’s perimeter, the interior blocks lack streetlights and sidewalks, while abandoned buildings and overgrown vacant lots sprinkle an area that should be the pride of Saipan.

One solution to revitalizing the Garapan core could be found in something called a business improvement district, or BID, a public-private partnership in its highest and best form. It brings together the owners of commercial properties in a designated area, with representation from government and the community, to decide what they want to do to improve the district.

As many of you know, I am no stranger to Saipan. I’ve been coming to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands for 40 years, initially with Hawaii governor George Ariyoshi for meetings with governor Carlos Camacho and the Pacific Basin Development Council, then as a special assistant with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Territorial and International Affairs Office, and more recently as a tourism executive. Along the way, with local business leader Jerry Tan, I helped form a Marianas chapter of the Pacific Century Fellows.

During my visits to Saipan, I’ve been asked by the late governor Eloy Inos and current Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and Lt. Go. Arnold Palacios and Jerry Tan of TanHoldings for ideas and advice on strengthening the CNMI’s visitor industry. One of my suggestions was the creation of a BID to revitalize the Garapan core.

The government had released a Garapan and Beach Road Revitalization Plan in 2007, but many very good recommendations were not acted upon, maybe because the plan did not contain an action agenda and timeframe. A BID can address these shortcomings.

Let’s take Waikiki. Waikiki is Hawaii’s economic engine, bringing millions of visitors to our shores every year and serving as a major source of jobs and tax revenue. But it wasn’t always so.

During my term on the Honolulu City Council, Waikiki was considered an aging destination. It was stagnant and rundown. Government, business, and community leaders all agreed that something had to be done to refresh Waikiki, a conclusion that Garapan stakeholders have reached.

Waikiki faced an additional problem. There were a number of highly publicized crimes against Japanese visitors, so the Japanese consul general issued a rare public declaration that if we could not safeguard our guests, the government would discourage travel to Hawaii.

That prompted us to convene a Visitor Crime Solutions Conference in 1997 and again in 1998 that pulled together stakeholders, complemented by experts from the mainland, to craft answers. The solutions included security cameras, a police substation on Waikiki Beach, and other ideas that are still in place today.

That first year, we heard from the head of the Association for Portland Progress, who impressed us with the achievements of that city’s BID. The following year, a guest speaker was president of the BID encompassing New York’s famous Times Square. She recounted their BID’s success in curbing crime, attracting business, and creating an inviting environment for visitors and residents both.

At that time, Rick Egged, presently with the Waikiki Improvement Association, and I and some other key, like-minded individuals collaborated on advocating for county legislation to create a BID for Waikiki. Rick organized the business community, while I was the advocate on the government side from my position as planning committee chairman and, later, council chairman. This partnership resulted in the passage in 2000 of a comprehensive law spelling out the details of the BID, which I later strongly supported as mayor and now as the head of HLTA, the state’s largest private sector visitor industry organization.

There are thousands of these BIDs across the United States and they serve a variety of purposes, depending on what the businesses want. But, in general, a BID will provide some service that supplements or complements the public services provided by government.

In Waikiki, for example, while the city government constructs the sidewalks, the BID cleans and maintains them. The city installed the landscaping along key Waikiki streets, but the BID maintains it. The city provides trash pickup once a day, but the BID schedules two more pickups a day to handle the volume.

The BID funds an Aloha Patrol, a team that provides information, reports violations of zoning regulations, and takes on other tasks. Patrol members staff the security cameras at the Waikiki police substation, relieving uniformed officers of this task.

More ambitious BIDs can take on larger responsibilities, such as capital improvements, but that decision rests with the BID governing board.

The operating money for a BID comes from the assessment of a fee on commercial property owners. It is funded entirely from the private sector. The key point is that the property owners, through a board of directors, determines how the money is to be spent and on what, not the government.

For Garapan, a BID, or any name the group chooses, can undertake a number of efforts to rejuvenate the district. Some possibilities offered by stakeholders include enforcing zoning and building regulations, developing more parking, maintaining the landscaping and sidewalks, having property owners clean overgrown lots, or developing an awning project to draw visitors to the streets during daylight hours.

Longer-term projects, requiring government support, include constructing sidewalks and installing streetlights, improving drainage and traffic management, and other larger-scale investments. We also envisage greater use of American Memorial Park for large community events like festivals, concerts, and other activities.

The beauty of a BID is that the BID board determines its goals and how it spends its money. My associates, Rick Egged and Gregg Hirata, and I recently concluded a talk-story listening tour of Saipan that was coordinated by the Commonwealth’s Office of Planning and Development, led by Kodep Ogumuro-Uludong and Chris Concepcion, to explain and gauge support for such a concept. Although more meetings and research need to be done, the reception to this idea thus far from business, government, and community leaders has been very positive and encouraging.

Now the work begins with the passage of legislation authorizing BIDs and the formation of a business group to organize the property owners and set specific goals and deadlines. In that regard, we’ll be working closely with the Office of Planning and Development, which will spearhead the effort on behalf of the CNMI government. For this public-private partnership to work, this needs to be a community-based planning process with an emphasis on input from all segments of the areas that are going to be impacted.

Mufi Hannemann (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Mufi Hannemann is president and chief executive officer of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association and is a former mayor of Honolulu.

Mufi Hannemann (Special to the Saipan Tribune)

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