By MARK RABAGO
The Northern Mariana Islands now has three chambers of commerce that aim to help local companies navigate the challenging world of private enterprise.
Saipan Chamber of Commerce
SUSUPE, Saipan — The Saipan Chamber of Commerce was formed in 1959, decades before the NMI came into existence.
From a high of around 160 members in 2017, its membership has dropped to 136.
“Unfortunately, membership has decreased in the last couple of years. SCC believes the main driver for the decrease in membership is due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial challenges of maintaining a business,” said Kimberly Camacho, incoming executive director.
However, Sablan said SCC hopes that participants who attended the Aug. 10 Friends of Business Summit will take advantage of its Start-Up membership — free for the first year of doing business.
“SCC has a good mix of small, medium, and large businesses within our membership. We look to attract startups, new businesses, and those from within the Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino communities,” she said, recognizing that the pandemic was a struggle for almost all businesses.
“The SCC continued to ask the CNMI government to help businesses in need of support. The SCC leadership was fortunate to collaborate on the BOOST Program and provided input into its development,” she said.
BOOST stands for Building Optimism, Opportunities and Stability Together, and is a project of the Office of the Governor and the Department of Commerce that aims to provide financial assistance to businesses and non-profit organizations. In the past year, the chamber also worked to keep members informed about workforce training/subsidy opportunities with the Department of Labor, Public School System, and the Northern Marianas Technical Institute, as well as IT infrastructure developments at the Department of Finance, she said.
The shortage of Commonwealth Only Transitional Workers is also a major concern for the group.
“The biggest issue that businesses face, directly or indirectly, is the availability of CW workers and foreign workers in general, especially as the CNMI economy reopens to tourism,” Sablan said.
“The government and the private sector need to continue to voice the need for a CW program that works for our situation. There are proposals currently being considered by CNMI Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan to address many of the issues related to the current CW program. We understand that the proposals may be included in one or more bills that may be considered by the U.S. Congress in the coming months,” she said.
SCC’s leadership team also includes Joe C. Guerrero, co-owner of the Naked Fish Bar & Grill, Shayne Villanueva, operations manager for AB Risk Solutions, vice president; Marcia Calvo, account executive with Calvo’s Insurance Underwriters, secretary; Janice Tenorio, manager for customer service, IT&E CNMI, treasurer; and Alexander A. Sablan, vice president at Tan Holdings, Velma A. Palacios, director of Network Operations and Engineering, IT&E CNMI; Nicole Babauta, consumer sales manager for Docomo Pacific, and Joshua Wise, general manager and pharmacist, Pacific Health Inc., all directors.
Rota Chamber of Commerce
SONG SONG, Rota — The Rota Chamber of Commerce was established on April 13, and has 17 members that range from small to medium businesses.
Although attempts were made in the past, this time the group was able to gather, adopt, and submit all required documents to form as a non-profit organization in CNMI in April.
The RCC asked that its comments be attributed to its officers as a group.
The chamber is hoping to recruit more members to ensure all industries are included to best represent the needs of the local business community.
The biggest issue facing Rota businesses and the island’s people continues to be its isolation. The chamber said Rota is the most isolated island in the NMI and therefore the cost to import goods is higher.
“The business community feels that many laws should be amended to best balance the need to import as well as streamline all the establishment and enforcement requirements. The collaborative partnership between the private sector and the Department of Labor and Department of Commerce are crucial to help identify outdated laws that should be amended to accommodate the business owners in finding more alternative ways to help businesses cut costs to help reduce the prices of commodities and services on our island.
“We believe that a strong partnership with open-minded views will help RCC’s vision to create an island where businesses, family and community succeed as one,” officials said.
The chamber also opposes House Bill 22-98, as it will only further increase the cost of living for consumers on Rota. Rep. Christina E. Sablan introduced the bill to gradually increase the NMI minimum wage to $10 an hour from $7.25.
Chamber president Steven McCoy and a few other members attended the House of Representatives public hearing in Rota, to share their opposition to the bill.
The group said it intends to vocalize the needs and concerns of the business community that will negatively affect not only local businesses, but the wider Rota community also.
The chamber plans to apply for some funding through the NMI government’s BOOST Program to help start the organization.
“RCC is willing and ready to push forward with the mission to empower local enterprises as a resource, advocate, and connector for Rota’s private sectors,” officials said.
Besides McCoy, chamber officers are Aubry M. Hocog, special assistant at the Office of the Mayor of Rota, vice president; Dana Calvo, Rota contact for the NMI Office of Grants Management & State Clearinghouse, secretary; Jacqueline A. Manglona, operations manager of Kin & Rit Enterprises and Kin & Rit Inc., treasurer. Other members of the board of directors are Juan “Juanpan” T. Guerrero, president/general manager, Insurance & Business Management Corp.; Pedro Dela Cruz, owner, Rota Merchandizing and DK Brothers, Vincent Calvo, Justin S. Manglona, and Kaye Christian.
Tinian Chamber of Commerce
SAN JOSE, Tinian — The Tinian Chamber of Commerce had about 130 members in 2014. Most were minority-owned small businesses, women-owned businesses or HUBZone certified businesses, according to Journal files.
The closure of the Tinian Dynasty Hotel & Casino, Rota’s biggest employer, forced many businesses to shutter. The COVID-19 pandemic and Super typhoons Soudelor and Yutu and COVID-19 also burdened businesses that were left.
The Tinian Chamber is about to restart its membership drive, according to Neal Eisgrou, secretary. “We haven’t gotten many of our original businesses to join,” he said.
Initially, the TCC wanted the rescinding of the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, which extended most provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act and other U.S. immigration laws to the NMI. The CNRA in turn gave birth to the Commonwealth Only Transitional Workers program.
USCIS reduced the CW-1 quota to 9,998 for fiscal 2018. “They fired nurses and other critical workers. They fired all my cooks. The U.S. congress had to intervene and increase the quota to 13,000 for FY 2019. The United States Government Accountability Office said removing all CW-1 workers by 2019 could reduce the CNMI’s GDP by up to 62%. The studies show we need them,” Eisgrou said.
The CNRA has become one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the continued development of local enterprise on Tinian, he said. The coming exit requirement for CW workers is an added burden, he said. “This year it takes seven months for companies to get approval for their CW workers. By the time they get here it is time to leave or renew. If it takes seven more months to renew and they cannot work during that time, how do we run our businesses?”
If he had his way, Eisgrou said Tinian and Rota would be better off controlling its own immigration and in essence taking over the CW program. A recent Tinian chamber survey showed 81% of those surveyed (17 of 21) wanted it rescinded and return the running of the foreign worker program to the CNMI. Survey results also showed that an overwhelming number also want long-term CWs to be granted unconditional permanent CW status.
“In order for the people of the CNMI to increase their prosperity, businesses must be allowed to flourish and not have their efficiency reduced by the USCIS,” Eisgrou said in his letter with the survey results to Gregorio “Kilili” C. Sablan, the NMI’s delegate to Congress.
Eisgrou said the chamber now wants a pilot program where Tinian and Rota take over the CW program. “It makes sense, since we need it the most and we know our business well and can keep track of them better than the U.S. mainland.”
He is also proposing that the NMI government give Tinian businesses $1,000 for each U.S. citizen or resident they hire, to be paid back after the employee serves a full year.
Eisgrou, who owns JC Cafe, said this would make up for the losses incurred by employees working for short amounts of time and then quitting.
Other members of the chamber leadership are Phillip T. Mendiola-Long, president of Fiduciary Resources LLC, president; Marilyn “Jackie” Mendiola, branch manager, Bank of Guam, treasurer; and Allen Perez, Joey “J.P” San Nicholas, and Jack Manglona, owner of Tinian Shipping Services LLC; all directors. mbj