GARAPAN Saipan — The Northern Mariana Islands Zoning Board will be coming up with a comprehensive land use plan that will include regulations requiring operators of poker arcades to shut down their operations in residential villages and move to a designated site.

W. Steve Tilley zoning administrator said the board will conduct a series of public hearings in the community to get  a pulse on where residents stand on the issue of poker arcades.

"We will be doing an outreach to the community to find out what the people are thinking about poker in particular " Tilley said.  "We want to find out how people want to handle some of these sensitive issues " he said.

Pulling poker arcades out of the villages "will be considered" by the board Tilley said.

"But we have to start talking to communities " he said. The hearings are scheduled to start in December according to Tilley.

There have been mounting concerns about having poker machines in the villages officials and lawmakers said citing ill-effects to the community and the numerous poker arcade robbery incidents over the years. Poker establishments on Saipan are usually located next door to a laundrymat establishment to attract people doing their laundry to play the machines.

Poker is a multi-million dollar industry in the NMI providing the local government with revenues to help sustain operations fund infrastructure projects like roads and sewer lines and finance community programs like the Secondary Higher Educational Financial Assistance of  Juan B. Tudela mayor of Saipan.

Poker operators on Saipan pay $12 000 in annual license fees per unit; those on Tinian and Rota pay $10 000.

The Saipan municipal government gets half of the license fee collections; Tinian and Rota get $4 000 of the individual fee payment.

According to Tilley there are about 100 poker arcade operators on Saipan. Government figures show that there are 1 226 poker machines on Saipan; 106 on Tinian; and 82 on Rota.

L&T Amusement one of the NMI’s poker machine operators announced on Oct. 30 that it will be shutting down its poker operations saying it’s not  a competitive venture anymore. L&T has 108 machines on Saipan 12 on Tinian and 24 on Rota. In the 1980s L&T had more than 400 poker machines. Most L&T poker arcades are in commercial areas.

Tilley said L&T’s decision is "interesting."

"That may certainly change the picture " he said.

There were numerous efforts in the past to close poker arcades operating in the villages including legislation. Tilley who was guest speaker at the Saipan Rotary Club’s regular meeting on Oct. 31 attributed the failure to implement a zoning plan for poker activities to lack of public support.  MBJ