Speaker's Weekly Address
Senator Judi P. Guthertz, Acting Speaker
July 12, 2011

Speaker Won Pat has been called to Washington this week to offer testimony on our longstanding but as yet unsuccessful effort to grant visa waivers to Russian and Chinese tourists, so I am filling in for her and delivering my own message as Acting Speaker.

The visa waivers continue to be vital to our tourism industry and we must all be hopeful that our representatives in the capital succeed in conveying the urgency of this approval to our economy. We must also remember that it is the tourism industry and many local businesses that have sustained our economy over the years, despite challenging economic times. We must continue to support the tourism industry and island businesses in any way we can.

As with many other matters important to Guam, we are thousands of miles from Washington and the distances involved—despite technology—still make communicating our concerns that much more difficult. Nevertheless, our history usually reflects that patience and hard work are rewarded, though painfully in this month of Liberation Day, that time has not arrived for war reparations, the subject of Governor Calvo's testimony in Washington this week.

I cannot imagine that by now, anyone resident in Guam or the mainland U.S. isn't aware of our present tough economic times. Those in the mainland are confronted with an unemployment rate upwards of 9 percent and by all accounts, there are few mainlanders who haven't felt the sting of the economic downturn either personally or through its effect on family members. Of course, many of you are saying to yourselves 9 percent unemployment, that's nothing! Our official Guam rate in recent months was about 14 percent and likely higher in reality.

As you know if you've lived through some economic downturns here, our economy is quite volatile. What might be a small dip in the complex economy of the United States can be a sharp spike downward in our island numbers and the downturn will likely last much longer here. Over the years we've tinkered with various ways to make our economy more stable and prosperous, only to find this a more difficult proposition than you might think. There have been some efforts to create a manufacturing base in Guam, but the rise and fall of the garment industry in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands has educated us about the potential downsides of this.

Guam has been a successful and seemingly natural tourist destination for many years, but we've also learned that this industry is acutely sensitive to circumstances. Take a look at our earthquake in the early 90s and the SARS epidemic a few years ago and you'll see what happened to the tourist arrival numbers immediately. Just go back to March of this year and Japan's trifecta of earthquake, tsunami and near nuclear meltdown for the latest and most threatening example. Tourists are not likely to go seeking pleasure and relaxation in a troubled place, nor are they likely to leave home when troubles must be dealt with there.

Many had hoped that the Guam military buildup would be the answer to our economic trials and tribulations, especially given the multi billion dollar level of expenditure that was presented to us early on. Some in our community jumped into the investment pool very early, before it became evident that the plans that were being presented were unsustainable. Investors were then painfully reminded that time and changes in circumstances in the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Treasury always will affect outcomes and not always to the benefit of the local bottom line.

Meanwhile, I am very pleased to see positive developments from island leaders, entrepreneurs and educators that will benefit both our island economy and society regardless of the size or schedule of the eventual military buildup. First, if we're to sustain our local economy and benefit from such opportunities as the buildup, we must have a well educated and skilled population. The University of Guam, the Guam Community College and the Trades Academy are investing in the island's youth by creating a skilled workforce. I urge those who haven't done so to hone their skills through the many available programs.

The decision to stretch out the military buildup provides the opportunity to obtain skills necessary for all Guam residents to capitalize on these opportunities. I also encourage our young people who may have left school to go back and finish high school via the GCC Adult Education and GED Programs. Receiving your high school diploma is essential for your future and Guam's future too!

The growth of an educated and skilled population leads to my support of Governor Calvo's new housing initiative. What is better or more needed to drive our local economy than more affordable and owner occupied housing? The Governor has marshaled his cabinet to make programs available to Guam residents to promote affordable home ownership. I encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity by contacting the Guam Housing and Urban Renewal Authority and the Guam Housing Corporation to learn how you can participate.

At the Legislature, as a Senator, I know that we owe our business community - down to the smallest - our best support. That's why I am proposing a legislative bill that will amend the business privilege tax exemptions for small businesses, commonly referred to as the Dave Santos amendment, which would at least double the amount of the tax exemptions. I am hoping that this measure will help current Guam businesses that are experiencing a downturn at this time. Dear friends, it's always intellectual capital and risk taking that really drives our economy in Guam. I'm talking about fresh eyes, that spot the opportunities that others of us walk by.

Over the past few weeks we have seen a number of new businesses open in Guam. For example, there is a new auto parts company in Tamuning - Car Quest. Long time entrepreneur Al Ysrael is moving forward with his next hotel project and we even have a new beach bar in Tumon. As someone who grew up here, I cannot imagine Guam without entrepreneurial risk takers.

An economic downturn doesn't stop Guam based entrepreneurs like Al Ysrael and Mark Baldyga. 21 years ago, Mark Baldyga opened the SandCastle on Tumon Bay. It was a fresh idea for Guam and it's going strong to this day. Mr. Baldyga has now gone one better with his Lina la Chamorro Cultural Park at Gun Beach, honoring and recreating the ancient Chamorro village that once stood there. He has also opened the nearby ‘Beach' bar, which is already drawing healthy crowds of locals, tourists and military personnel who are always ready for something new. Guam needs risk takers and visionaries in all sectors of society.

Together, we'll get through these tough times and see a new and much more prosperous Guam as the 21st Century continues. I am very optimistic about Guam's future! There is no challenge we cannot meet or overcome if we work together and commit ourselves to doing so.

Have a great week, Guam!