The Marianas Round Table has one specific aim — to get ideas from the business community on how the Northern Mariana Islands can improve economic opportunities.

A number of organizations are sponsoring the conference: Atalanta Sosnoff The Commonwealth Bankers Association The Commonwealth Development Authority The Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands The Saipan Chamber of Commerce Tan Holdings and the Workforce Investment Board through the Department of Labor. Speakers will include William Stewart economist; Rear Adm. Arthur Johnson commander of Naval Forces Marianas; Henry Tan chief executive officer and president of Luen Thai Holdings Ltd. Chris Flynn executive director of the Pacific Asia Travel Association; and Wali Osman economist at the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs.

Alex A. Sablan president of the Saipan Chamber told the Journal “The group’s hope is that we can get candidly behind closed doors and hear a litany of ideas that haven’t been achieved yet in the CNMI.”

Sablan said opportunities for a wide number of members of the private sector to share ideas had been rare. “We haven’t had conferences frequently enough to stay up to date.”

A free exchange of ideas was hoped for at the round table he said. Sessions will have facilitators in the room to keep the discussion and dialogue free flowing he said.

“It is our hope that we will have a candid discussion on the opportunities for expansion and to fix things that may not be conducive for the business climate.”

He said inevitably participants would raise changes they would like to see in government rules and regulations and there were obstacles in the Northern Mariana Islands that are a deterrent to business. “We believe there are many hurdles still in place i.e. the labor moratorium and the three year limit.

“The labor moratorium means an inability for businesses to go after a skilled labor force. Foreign labor is a key investment and one of the things that stifling investment ” he said. A reduction in the stay provision for foreign labor is due to take place — dropping from five years to three — in the next few months. “We need that repealed ” Sablan said. “That’s a standard we shouldn’t have to live.”

Additionally he said the qualifying certificate program should offer investors real value citing the example of the Hyatt Regency Saipan that decided against investment into a 500 room conference facility expansion of its restaurant and room renovation because of difficulties with the QC process.

“What we’ve done is bastardize the process. Reporting requirements make no sense to the situation we are in there are many requirements that were unachievable in the market place. Numerous leveraging arrangements equated to no gain and no advantage to do it.”

Sablan said politicians could do more to help the private sector. “We need to have policy makers that understand what it means to grow and sustain growth. There has been no significant investment in the commonwealth over the last eight to 10 years. We no longer have a federal threat of minimum wage and takeover of immigration.”

Ownership regulations in the CNMI were a deterrent to investment he said. “I don’t think people truly realize what a disadvantage it is that we don’t have true leasing or a relatively good lending program because banks don’t have ability to recoup losses if somebody goes into default of loan. It’s an under-valuation of our land. It would definitely be a bigger sellers market than a buyers market if we had fee simple.”

The support for the conference was meaningful he said. Sablan said that Atalanta Sosnoff’s interest in the CNMI was very positive. “Their process is investing money. It is our hope that they Merrill Lynch and a couple of other firms offer the idea of pocket industries that could be created if these investment firms put money into the commonwealth for tax purposes but with advantages to putting money into the commonwealth — venture capital accounts financial services — aspects we don’t have in the commonwealth.”

Sablan said that the Northern Mariana Islands are not over-invested. “There are many opportunities available. We hope to have more hotels. We need more room inventories. We only have one branded hotel in the commonwealth.” Sablan said the membership of a Hilton representative in the Department of Interior investment group was welcome and had been as a result of CNMI-based encouragement.

The community would welcome the conversion of local jobs to federal jobs — an effort he said the administration had already begun.

Sablan said the group would use the round table as a starting point before it spread out to other stakeholders in the community.

“We want to use these varying ideas comments and statements to move the discussion forward with the grassroots. We are going to continue the Marianas Round Table Planning Committee.” He said local leaders in the village communities would also be involved in planning for improvements to infrastructure and tourism which he referred to as the mainstay industry of the CNMI to move planning and programming forward.

“All of these various groups will continue to come to table so we can get some vision. I am confident in our people.” MBJ