SOUR GRAPES

Zoning works—mostly

As much as I am against government interference in the personal lives and decisions of citizens, I do value the contribution of properly organized and enforced Zoning in improving the quality of life of a place. Saipan cries out for such improvements and the Zoning Office has begun the process here. There is plenty more to do. Keep up the good work, Therese, board and staff.

Now for the bad news: Five years ago ATV tours on Saipan were all the rage. There were several already in business and the Zoning Office had several more that wanted to join in the fun and try to make a buck showing tourists around our beautiful island. A “short-term” moratorium was placed on any and all new applications while “somebody” came up with regulations covering this small but profitable industry. (All government loves regulating, need it or not). Okay, I’ll admit it; I was sitting on the Zoning board of directors when this issue came up and reluctantly voted for a temporary, short-term moratorium of a few months.

Problem is, here we are five years later with no resolution. Those 11 applications are still sitting there, although most of those would-be business owners gave up long ago. What the Zoning Office has managed to do, bottom line, is allow those ATV tours already in business five years ago, to have no competition for the last five years. That was certainly not the intent but, sadly, that is exactly what has happened, and all that has happened. The “somebody” never showed up.

Recently, that issue was once again delayed by the Zoning board so that, again, “somebody” could get around to regulating this small industry. Business is good, it supports the economy. Competition is good. It promotes better business practices and lower, competitive prices. It adds valuable tax dollars to the coffers of the CNMI government. Will it take another five years of thinking about it before any action is taken? We hope not. Again, I know this is not the intent of the Zoning office to inhibit competition, but that is what is happening.

Do we need zoning on Saipan? Yes, if we want to keep tourism as a mainstay of our economy, we badly need to spruce the place up. Sadly, government force is the only way to get some people off the dime and clean their act up. Well-thought-out Zoning improves the quality of life for all of us.

Garapan revitalization
We live and die by our tourism industry. Tourist destinations need a few things to attract visitors and make them like a place enough to come back. Smiling happy people that welcome visitors is one requirement. We already have that important ingredient for the most part. Also needed are clean neat, well-organized visitor sites, villages, and towns, decent, well-marked roads, interesting and successful businesses that cater to the visitors’ needs and wants and, finally, most successful destinations have a focal point. An area or place that is the iconic symbol of that destination. Waikiki in Hawaii, the French Quarter in New Orleans, and the Left Bank in Paris are examples. Garapan could be our own island version of Waikiki, our focal point.

There is a movement afoot that, if organized, funded, and implemented, can make western Garapan a first-class focal point for our CNMI visitor industry. What we have now is more like third-class with weed-filled, unkempt vacant lots, rundown buildings, few sidewalks, few or no streetlights, and landscaping done by typhoon and the bird droppings technique. There are also some nice areas with wide sidewalks, well-kept buildings and pleasant landscaping, especially around the edges of Garapan. But walk 50 feet away from those nice streets and you are in that dark-at-night, trash strewn areas, wondering why you came.

Our jungles and flame trees will come back to their former glory after Super Typhoon Yutu naturally, but infrastructure, villages, and buildings need human help. Garapan as a focal point needs human help.

The Office of Planning and Development with Kodep Ogumoro-Uludong and Chris Concepcion are spearheading a program to make Garapan that first-class area that visitors will someday see as Saipan’s iconic focal point. They have brought in experts from Hawaii where successful revitalization efforts have been going on for some time. Rick Egged, the president of the now 40-year old Waikiki Improvement Association, and Mufi Hannemann, ex-mayor of Honolulu and now with the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, came to Saipan last week to hold two public meetings and to meet with stakeholders. Under discussion were proven options and techniques that cut through the red tape and allow public/private partnerships, or PPPs, to form up, get funded, and do productive work revitalizing and maintaining a first-class destination with thriving businesses that cater to visitors.

There are several ways to forge these partnerships, like business improvement districts, or BIDs, special improvement districts, and several other options. What they all have in common is a group of business people, residents, and local stakeholders get together with government to set out a specific area to work on. Some of the money to accomplish these good works comes from the businesses in the area and some of it comes from the government. One of the first stages is planning the revitalization, which can be expensive. Luckily, back in 2007, a good Garapan plan was funded but only partially implemented, so that already-paid-for plan can be updated and used as a blueprint for Garapan improvement. We also have the Saipan and Garapan plans drawn up by world-renowned landscape architect Jinichi Inada. He is they guy that turned much of Singapore from a swamp into garden over 35 years.

The kinds of things a BID does is focus on improving infrastructure like sidewalks, lighting landscaping and, most importantly, on funded, ongoing maintenance once the new infrastructure is in place. Sadly, maintenance is not always a strong suit here but it is vital if the revitalization money is not to be wasted. Cleaning, maintaining, and landscaping maintenance are contracted out as are all other functions and the association itself has only a skeleton staff or two or three people to keep down costs. Other details like a roving visitor information staff or a fixed information kiosk with “Hospitality Corps” personnel and security cameras and personnel that work with and report problems to the CNMI police force can follow. They could work with government and, hopefully, finally fix the Garapan sewage stink problem. They could rid the area of commercial blight, fix up abandoned buildings and solve one of Garapan’s biggest issues: lack of parking.

Should we do it? Yes, we should. Should we ignore Susupe or San Antonio or other areas that desperately need help? No, but separate BIDs can be set up in those areas too. How do we proceed? By getting more people involved, by continuing public outreach sessions, by not giving up on what can become the jewel of Saipan tourism, Western Garapan.

Thanks for reading Sour Grapes! Next Friday, new grapes to stomp into wine.

When asked about completing his income tax form, Albert Einstein said, “This is a question too difficult for a mathematician. It should be asked of a philosopher.”

“I know everyone is happy to get their tax refund this year. It is especially gratifying to note that the government gives us back our own money after using it for a year without paying us any interest.”
—Me

Bruce Bateman (Special to the Saipan Tribune)
Bruce A. Bateman resides on Saipan with a wife, a son, and an unknown number of boonie dogs. He has owned and operated a number of unusual businesses and most recently worked as the marketing manager for MVA. Bruce likes to read, travel, tinker with bicycles, hike, swim, and play a bit of golf. He is opinionated and writes when the moon is full and the mood strikes.

Bruce Bateman (Special to the Saipan Tribune)

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