Friday, June 29, 2007

A troubling exodus of people, and a few bright spots worth mentioning.

Food For Thought 6-29-07

Hi friends, this is Harry Blalock; General Manager for radio stations KZMI & KCNM. It’s that time once again to take a look at the issues of the week, and to offer some Food For Thought.

It would seem that we need added seat capacity on the airlines servicing Saipan lately. Unfortunately it seems that most of the seats are for one-way trips away from Saipan. In the past week, I have come across about a dozen people all leaving Saipan for one reason or another. Some of them are leaving to go back and be close to the family they left behind to come out here, which is completely understandable. Others are leaving because the cost of living here has just climbed to the point of no longer being competitive with other similar destinations, also totally understandable. They can live in other places in the Pacific Rim for a fraction of the cost to live here. Our soaring utility costs are a big factor in many of the people’s decisions to leave. I have talked to some people who used to have a $300 per month utility bill; their bills have now skyrocketed to $700 or $800 a month. How do you handle that when your hours and wages are being cut at the same time? You are being asked to live on less, when your costs are skyrocketing out of control. It’s simple economics, and it just doesn’t work.

Then there are those that trouble me the most. They are the ones who were born here, who call this island home, and for the most part, whose family is still right here in the islands. The reasons I have heard for many of them leaving is that they just have no confidence that things will ever improve here. They have witnessed their relatives who are in power rape and pillage these islands financially. They have watched them use and abuse their positions for their own profit. They hear the campaign rhetoric and the public spin their relatives give, but they see them behind the scenes and know the truth. They realize that without some serious, sweeping reforms, our islands will not recover from this current disaster we are facing, but will just continue the downward spiral. They want something better for their families and their children. They realize that they may have to take pay cuts, and find lower level jobs if they go to the states, but they don’t care, they look at it as a step in the right direction because they have totally lost faith in their relatives in power and the system currently in place here. In the past couple months; I have talked to no less than 20 local families all expressing such sentiments. These families are expressing their frustration by casting a no confidence vote in the way things are being handled. No, they’re not going to the election booth and casting the vote, they are casting it by walking away from their home and all they have ever known and moving to the states. And when someone is to the point of casting their vote that way, you know you have some very serious problems that won’t be cured by simply promising better times and offering several other hollow campaign promises.

In many respects, I believe we are a community in crisis at the moment. Most of our problems seem to be bigger than life, the exit of the garment industry, dwindling government resources, escalating fuel prices and electricity rates as a result, a legislature that seems incapable of handling anything, fewer and fewer airline seats coming in to the CNMI and the list goes on and on. If you only concentrate on all the negative things swirling around you, it is easy to become discouraged and think there is no hope. And when you only concentrate on all the negative things, it tends to shape your thinking processes and limit your potential as well. But I have been getting glimmers of some very positive things happening and taking place in our islands. I think we need to search these positive things out and give them the proper recognition they deserve as well.

One of the biggest gripes of most people is the lack of enforcement in almost everything. We have laws coming out our ears, but the problem is that most of them aren’t worth the paper they are written on because nobody is making any effort to enforce them. I was sitting in Capricciosa eating dinner last Friday night when I looked out the window and saw that someone had moved 4 rusted out containers onto that vacant lot on the corner. Yes, it is the same one they had set up the yellow tents on previously and used to sell Tinian hot pepper products and I’m not sure what all else. There were workers with torches who were cutting holes into the containers, I’m assuming to turn them into some kind of a makeshift building for a store. I shook my head that this was actually being allowed. As if we don’t already have enough image problems on Saipan, now we were allowing someone to use nasty looking containers for a business right in the heart of our tourism district, and right on Beach Road. I was thinking to myself, this is exactly why we need zoning. Hold on, I haven’t forgotten about getting to the positives, I just had to pave the way first.

Then this morning when I checked my e-mail, there was one from Steve Tilley, the Zoning Administrator. It was a press release saying that he had cited Empress Inc. with a Notice of Violation for having the cut up containers on that lot by Capricciosa and Tony Roma’s. The company was cited for failing to apply for a zoning permit for installing a container storage structure in the middle of Saipan’s premier shopping district, warning that penalties could be in the thousands of dollars and include jail time. This company also failed to get a building permit. The notice of violation was issued on June 28th, but Tilley’s calls to the company have gone unanswered as of the time of issuing the press release. The company can be fined $1,000 per violation, per day and has one month to respond to the notice. So just pretending they don’t know what’s going on won’t work, the fines could be enough to bankrupt them in no time if they don’t get their affairs in order. I can’t ever remember being so happy in reading a press release from a government agency. The system is actually working!

If we allowed businesses to just throw up any kind of structure they wanted, no matter how hideous it looked, this would be turned into a shantytown island in no time. We have been criticized as being a low-end tourist destination in the past, and things like those containers on that corner lot would only add fuel to that accusation. I’m glad to see we have Steve Tilley standing guard trying to make sure that we don’t let our image continue to deteriorate. The implementation of enforcement actually stopped that project dead in it’s tracks, can you just imagine what would happen if we got serious about enforcing some of our other laws? Great job Steve, and awesome way to set an example of taking your job seriously!

Then I also wanted to spend a little time talking about a group of bright young students Angelo Villagomez and Bree Reynolds brought in to my studio Thursday morning. They are part of the Beautify CNMI Marianas Challenge Summer Camp, being put on by Angelo and Bree. These students really are learning about our environment, and what they can do to help protect it. I made sure they’ve learned something by grilling them with questions on Island Issues. Sami and Zoe totally impressed me with what they’ve learned and their passion about it. The only thing that caused me any concern at all was that Sami was just way too relaxed and good on the radio. I’m afraid she could replace me in a heartbeat if she wanted to, my only consolation is that she’s just going in to the 9th grade this coming year, so my job is probably safe for a couple years anyway.

Part of what they did in this camp was to write public service announcements from what they have learned to air on the radio stations. Some of them even wrote an original song about beautifying the CNMI, they wrote the words and music. They came in with their ukelele and recorded the song in my production studio. I’ve got to say, I absolutely love it! You’ll be hearing a lot of that song and those psa’s in the coming months on both of our radio stations. What a talented group of students, and something tells me these are our leaders of tomorrow. If you’d like to see some of the pictures from their summer camp, and learn what it was all about, you can go to the website and read all about it. Tasi Tours deserves a big thank you for donating a van and driver to help transport the campers all week to their various places. And after hearing from the students on the air, Ed Salas of Tan Holdings Corporation called up donating Shirleys lunch for all the campers that day. They had talked about how the camp was being run on a shoestring budget and they were just making do with whatever they had, so Ed called up on behalf of Tan Holdings to give them a break from peanut butter or bologna for lunch. Many thanks go out to all the various people in the community who chip in to make amazing events like this happen. And while you could technically say this was job related for Angelo, Bree is a science teacher at Hopwood Junior High School, and is supposed to be on summer vacation right now. But she loves what she’s doing so much, and loves the students so much, that she donated her time to help put on this summer camp.

So in spite of the fact that we are in the middle of some very challenging times right now, there are still some amazing things happening right in the middle of it all. We all have a choice, whether we’re going to be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution. These students have made the choice to be part of the solution. Steve Tilley has chosen to be part of the solution by taking his job seriously, and not letting the image of Saipan continue to deteriorate. Great job all of you! Now as for the rest of you, how can we get you plugged in to be part of the solution, any ideas?

I’m Harry Blalock, thanking you once again for giving me a generous slice of your valuable time, and allowing me to share my Food For Thought.

For more thoughts, pictures and observations, feel free to visit my personal blog at

My commentary that airs on radio stations KZMI - 103.9 FM & KCNM - 101.1 FM