Saipan — In 2018, a $21-million lease agreement was inked between the United States and the CNMI, making Tinian an alternative landing site for U.S. Air Force planes in case the airfield at Anderson Air Force Base on Guam becomes unavailable for any reason.
The plan, which started in 2016, involved the development of the Pacific Air Force Divert and Exercise airport.
With increased military presence, infrastructure development, a spike in demand for workforce and a significant wave of commercial activity have been on the rise on Tinian.
According to Tinian Sen. Jude Untalan Hofschneider, the decision to choose Tinian as the USAF divert field is a tremendous accomplishment for both the CNMI and USAF.
When the Northern Marianas Islands became a commonwealth 42 years ago, the people of Tinian gave two-thirds of the island to the U.S. for military use.
“As a representative of the community of Tinian, we are finally seeing the true benefit of being the island that sacrificed two-thirds of its total land area to be a member of the political family of the United States and the promise to benefit economically because of this mutual agreement,” he said.
Even amid the pandemic, Hofschneider said, new businesses have emerged on Tinian, while other established businesses in the region have recently expanded to the island to capture the upswing in activity.
“Overall, the economic indicator points toward growth in activities on Tinian and it's exciting to see and it is crucial that we on Tinian use this period of growth as an opportunity to diversify our economy,” Hofschneider said.
A tranquil small island rich in history, Tinian is a magnet for history buffs. It is where the first atomic bomb was loaded aboard the B-29 Enola Gay on Aug. 6, 1945 and dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
The once sleepy island now has a population of approximately 4,000. Over the years, it has been known for its thriving economy that relied mainly on farming, cattle and, once upon a time, a robust casino industry until the Tinian Dynasty closed in 2015.
“The food service industry today seems to be thriving — restaurants and food catering, as well as laundry services for military personnel. There has also been an increase in car rental activity and these are in response to the demand of both military personnel and contractors that frequent the island for the prerequisite work before construction begins early next year,” Hofschneider said.
“In addition, the construction of the new casino facility by Bridge Investment Group near the Honorable Jose Pangelinan San Nicolas Commercial Port of Tinian continues on during the pandemic as well as the construction of a 150- room hotel development near Jones Beach. Ferry services are in the pipeline but they are still working on other matters before they begin operations,” he added.
Tinian also has a meat industry but production is primarily for the island’s subsistence. Next step is to get the Tinian slaughterhouse certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The infrastructure is in place, but we need to make sure that the plan and infrastructure meet requirements as we hope to open before the end of this year,” Hofschneider said.
Tinian is also working with the Northern Marianas College - Cooperative Research Extension and Education Service & Commonwealth Development Authority to develop ways to ensure sustainable beef production once the processing center is up and running, he added.
Tinian seeks to pilot the CNMI’s food security initiative, using the island’s efforts to produce grass-fed beef for the people in the CNMI.
“Given the pandemic's effects on food production companies and our distance from the U.S., which supplies most of our food items, we feel that it is only a matter of time until we feel the effects of food insecurity in the CNMI,” Hofschneider said.
Construction activities are also on the rise, thus opening up a demand for workforce. Besides the military construction, hotel developments and residential housing projects are sprouting on the island, alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency projects to repair the typhoon-damaged infrastructures.
Recently, the CNMI was approved to receive another $244- million Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery. Of this amount, at least $15 million will be spent on Tinian's infrastructure, including underground power cables, road paving and construction of public buildings among other things, Hofschneider.
To make Tinian more enticing to business investments and opportunities, Hofschneider urged the government to improve efficiency in expediting permits. “Decentralization of permitting processes is one way to help expedite the initial phases of development projects,” he said.
He also recommended that shipping clearance be allowed at Tinian or Rota ports if either one is the cargo’s final destination. A streamlined process will help drive the cost down, Hofschneider said.
“The government must also prioritize making inter-island transport affordable for CNMI residents. Inter-island transport would help lower the high cost of goods and allow for the free flow of people— and by extension, business activity — into our island,” Hofschneider added.
He said until all of these happen, starting or maintaining a business on Tinian will remain a costly endeavor.
“With the number of projects slated for the next few years, it's time that we grow as we go,” Hofschneider said. “With the global problem of Covid-19, the tourism industry will take a while to rebound so the government must do all they can to push the execution of construction projects in the most expeditious way because at the end of the day, diversifying the CNMI economy is a must.”