Kyle Calabrese is the executive director of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce an appointment he has held since December 2007. He formerly was the operations consultant for Herman's Modern Bakery and also consultant to Juan T. Guerrero & Associations and Insurance and Business Management Corp.
Calabrese is the vice chairman of the Commonwealth Public Utilities Commission and a member of the Department of Commerce's Foreign Student Education Oversight Panel. A native of Connecticut he holds a 1990 bachelor's in the arts from Vassar College. Calabrese has lived in the Northern Mariana Islands since 1997.
Q: What issues has the chamber worked on so far in 2010?
A: The Saipan Chamber of Commerce has split its time between addressing local and federal issues so far this year. On the federal front we've engaged in an ongoing dialogue with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Office of Insular Affairs with respect to the much-needed regulations concerning foreign workers and foreign investors under the Consolidated Natural Resources Act. These regulations were supposed to have been published a year ago and we have not yet received any concrete timeframe for their release. In the meantime we take every available opportunity to educate federal officials about our unique needs in the CNMI in this regard. We also took time to extensively review and comment upon the Draft Environment Impact Statement for the Guam military buildup. Although the DEIS makes clear that there are no great economic benefits intended for the CNMI in the context of the buildup we want to ensure that no unintended harm befalls our community either.
One of the most important initiatives we are working on in conjunction with the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands as well as Congressman Gregorio Sablan is to obtain a temporary reprieve in 2011 from the annual minimum wage increases that were implemented in 2007 and which will have increased the minimum wage by approximately 66% in three years. We are cognizant of the congressional intent embodied in Public Law 110-28 and of the need for a fairly-compensated workforce. We do however believe that the 66% increase in the minimum wage rate over a period of three years represents a tremendous step forward in that direction. It is in nobody's best interests — not workers not businesses and not the government — for uncontrolled cost increases to lead to business closures. Wage increases should not come about at the expense of jobs.
On the local front the chamber has spent a lot of time reviewing analyzing commenting on and meeting with elected officials about legislation that would impact the business community. As is often the case during periods of economic hardship many elected leaders are seeking fast and easy short-term answers to revenue problems in particular without considering the long-term impact of their actions. Their efforts to increase fees and taxes at a time when there is virtually no inflow of new investment and while businesses and their customers are struggling to survive is particularly troubling. A number of legislators have been willing to talk with us about these issues and we have had some limited success but we will continue to work to educate our leaders about the practical effects that their proposed actions would have on businesses and the community.
Q: What do you foresee the chamber will be working on in the next 18 months?
A: On federal issues we certainly hope that we will have final regulations with respect to foreign investors and foreign workers in the near future. However those regulations will only address immediate concerns for foreign investors foreign workers and businesses. The chamber is working to formulate a plan that would hopefully address the commonwealth's labor needs for the long-term. The current five-year limitation on possible extensions of the CNRA simply does not allow for current or potential investors to make the kind of long-term plans that are necessary when considering substantial investment in the CNMI. On the local front we expect there will be a continued need to encourage the government to decrease spending in a manner that is viable for the duration of what has turned out to be a severe and protracted economic depression. We will also need to continue to encourage legislators to resist the temptation to try and tax their way out of an economic depression; that simply will not work.
Q: There seems to be new members joining despite the economic downturn. Please comment.
A: Prudent business owners understand that a time of economic uncertainty is probably when they face the greatest challenges from the threat of increased taxes to a decreased customer base and revenues. Most businesses in the CNMI are not large enough to have one or more employees dedicated to monitoring legislation working with lawmakers providing in-house workshops for employees and the like. The support of businesses through membership in the chamber however enables us to provide these services which benefit our members and the business community as a whole.
Q: The chamber puts an emphasis on scholarships — why does it do this?
A: Among the missions of the chamber are the imperatives that we promote the general health and welfare of our community and that we encourage the development of the human resources of our community. The chamber's Educational Scholarship Fund was established to partially fulfill those goals. An educated workforce benefits not only businesses but our entire community. It is the chamber's goal through the scholarship fund to empower our future employees business owners and leaders.
Q: How have members been receiving the seminar series?
A: We've had some great turnout for our workshops. These workshops are an opportunity for our members to receive the benefit of some expert advice on issues that are important to businesses but for which it may be too expensive or impractical for individual companies to arrange in-house training. In particular our annual individual and corporate tax seminars are always popular and we also had a full house for our recent media/public relations workshop. We're also looking forward to an upcoming workshop on EEO law and recordkeeping requirements for businesses.
Q: What are the chamber’s biggest fears associated with federalization?
A: I'm not sure that there are any “fears ” but there certainly is a fair amount of frustration about the federal government's delay in publishing regulations under the CNRA. There are too many “unknowns.” The continuing uncertainty negatively impacts current and potential business investors and ultimately our economy. We're also frustrated with the apparent inability of the federal and local governments to resolve disagreements concerning the applicability of certain local labor laws — this has added to the expense and complexity of doing business in the CNMI.
Q: What can the government do to help the business community in the NMI?
A: The federal government could (1) fulfill their responsibilities under the CNRA and (2) work with us to craft the sort of long-term solutions to our labor needs that the CNRA does not address. The local government could try and offer a semblance of a stable business-friendly environment. The lawmaking process in the CNMI is often sudden poorly thought out and unpredictable. Laws can and do change without adequate research understanding of the consequences or explanation. That does not create an environment conducive to attracting or retaining businesses. The local government could also focus on enforcing existing laws particularly those relating to taxation and licensing before moving to further penalize law-abiding businesses by increasing fees and taxes. MBJ