Military Buildup Seen as Boom, Test for Tiny Island of Guam

In the next six years, the population of the U.S. Territory of Guam is expected to explode by 25 percent as the American military redeploys thousands of its forces from Japan to the tiny Pacific Ocean island. The more than $15 billion project is expected to fuel the economy, but also threatens to strain its infrastructure and threaten its tourism industry.

Catherine Norton reports for the Online NewsHour.

CATHERINE NORTON: As the closest American region to many of Asia’s international flash-points, the U.S. Territory of Guam has been for decades home to some of the country’s most critical military installations.

The island has held that role since World War II when hundreds of U.S. Marines stormed the beaches, to take back from the Japanese government this strategically important piece of real estate.

Japanese rule over the island had been at times brutal and its liberation on July 21, 1944 at the hands of the United States military, is something most Chamorro people would be forever grateful.

With diplomatic challenges in North Korea and China, the importance of the Navy and Air Force presence on Guam has only grown. But, as that role grows, so does the need for the military to control some of most prime real estate on the 32-mile long island.

U.S. Air Force Planes over GuamAs the military importance of Guam has increased, it has run into the fast-growing economy of the island, leading to tension between the island’s residents and the military. Guam’s leaders, seeking to bolster the island’s tourist trade, pushed for greater independence from U.S. control, and sought to gain back ownership of prime real-estate occupied by military forces.

Mike Ady, a veteran and Guam businessman, said this was a strategy that in many ways back-fired.

MIKE ADY: When you basically tell them “We don’t need you. You are not a welcome partner in our community.” And our government just said, “We are making so much money on the Japanese economy that we don’t need you.” Well, what are you going to do? The military is going to say well obviously they don’t need us. So fine, they close Naval Air Station, they close the Ship Repair Facility, they downsized all the Navy and then what happened, in my opinion, is the Chamber of Commerce — the Armed Forces Committee was developed at the point of time — a lot of business men from Guam got on an airplane and flew to Yukuska, (Japan) to the see the Admiral there and said “Admiral, we’re sorry. We want you. You’re our friends, you’re our companions. Please come back.” On bended knee. And that, they started bringing in the (USS) Kitty Hawk and having them do port calls here and leave here and as you see building up and building up.

CATHERINE NORTON: With the island much more amenable to continued military presence and the U.S. Department of Defense reassessing how to deploy its forces, growth of the military bases on Guam seemed likely.

After months of research and closed-door meetings, the Department of Defense announced in 2006 it would relocate 8,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa, Japan to Guam.

The 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force is anticipated to join 14,000 Military members already on Guam, and with them they are expected to bring 12,000 dependants. In addition, the other branches of the Armed Forces — Navy, Air Force and Army — are expected to increase its personnel on the island. Once settled, the total population is projected to rise to 40,000 Military members and their families, compared with the island’s 170,000 inhabitants.

The move will bolster the island’s tax base and fuel some parts of the economy. But some residents are worried about the impact the move will have on their island home.

Joey Duenas, who makes his living off the land buying and selling real estate, says it makes for uneasy neighbors.

JOEY DUENAS: There’s the island of Guam and all of us who call it home and the military is like our neighbor, so it’s like two neighbors and they are side by side like two houses and you kind of what to know what your neighbor is doing.

CATHERINE NORTON: Although many residents are skeptical at how open the military will be about its planning, the Defense Department has tapped Retired Marine Corps Major General David Bice to coordinate the massive operation. Working primarily from his Washington D.C. office, Bice’s team on Guam is focused on working with the local population.

MAJOR GENERAL DAVID BICE: We’re developing and identifying the construction projects that we expect to be started in 2010 both for the U.S. funding as well as for the Japanese direct cash funding as well. We are developing engineering studies, developing the project lists and the funding requirements for that. And then we will be presenting them through our normal budgetary process, both within the Department of Defense and it goes through the normal staffing and budgetary process and then it goes to the federal government.

CATHERINE NORTON: The project is huge, carrying a $15 billion price-tag that will be covered by the U.S. and Japanese government. Of those numbers, almost $6 billion will be new money spent on construction and direct investments, a figure that has many Guamanians believing they now have a world of economic and employment opportunities available to them.

Local entrepreneurs are leaving nothing to chance in their efforts to gain from this surge. Mike Ady, who owns and operates an office furniture and business systems company, says it is an opportunity, only if Guam businesses seize it.

MIKE ADY: My concern with these local businesses is they think that this is a lottery, that we won the lottery, it is not. The business is there, but they will not come to you, you have to go to them and if you do not have your ducks in a row and don’t prepare yourself — get your bond in, get your CCR registration, get your financial statements all in order — the gun is going to go off and if you don’t have all of these things ready, it is going to pass you right by.

CATHERINE NORTON: But no matter how much of the work is done by local businesses, some business people are sure the work will outpace the local resources. Cliff Guzman works for a local business that operates a multi-million dollar housing contract for Navy Guam.

CLIFF GUZMAN: Let’s face it the fact of the matter is we have limited resources on Guam. So no matter how you cut that up, we are still going have limited resources, we’re still going to have to depend on foreign workers to come in here or foreign companies bringing in their expertise. The key there is to join local business with some these other businesses from off-island so that some of those skill sets remain on Guam long after this buildup is over because a lot of the companies interested in the buildup are coming out here to support the building part or work for the planning part, but they are not here necessarily to run the operation once the buildings are built and the Marines are here.

CATHERINE NORTON: Making room for 20,000 new neighbors on a tiny island already with a population of 170,000 residents, will be an insurmountable task with huge implications. The Government of Guam is taking the lead to prepare areas outside of the military fences, to review the needs and to find the cash for improvements.

TONY LAMORENA: The reality is its not just going to be a military buildup, it will be a buildup on the civilian side as large or maybe a little smaller than the military buildup. With $15 billion being spent on the military installation and increasing military personnel and their families to 40,000, it is obvious there will be new businesses being established, new homes are going to be built and we are going to see an in-migration of — we are anticipating 20,000 people including family members looking for work. So the impact on the local community is going to be just as great as it is going to be inside the base.

CATHERINE NORTON: Tony Lamorena oversees the Civilian Military Task Force — the local business leaders spearheading buildup efforts on behalf of the community. Lamorena says they expect a corresponding buildup of off base structures, infrastructure, roadways and homes and possibly schools, much of that building will only happen once the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, is signed.

TONY LAMORENA: The military is looking at bringing in 15,000 construction workers. We’re anticipating the civilian side will need 10,000 construction workers. We’re seeing it now where new condominium and housing developments are now being proposed and are being heard by the Guam land use commission. And yet we are still two and a half years from the EIS being approved and 2 and a half years from the major construction taking place.

CATHERINE NORTON: The community understands their island home is an important Military stronghold in Asia, but many question the economic as well as environmental and social costs.

U.S. Naval Ships Arrive in GuamAlready the military has said it will need additional land for firing ranges and surface weapons testing areas. In addition, a deep pier may be needed to accommodate another aircraft carrier in Guam’s Apra Harbor. The EIS has said the construction will impact the island’s marine life and coral, but to what extent and how it will be mitigated has yet to be analyzed and published.

Once complete and approved in 2009, a Final Master Plan is expected to follow in the early part of 2010.

Guam’s economy is already starting to show signs of growth from the buildup. An economic report published by First Hawaiian Bank shows a big part of the recent improvement in the Guam economy can be traced to this anticipation, with the largest growth in direct military contracts. The Pentagon’s Joint Guam Program Office projects total spending to amount to between $2.0 and $2.5 billion annually, up from the historic average of about $500 million.

But business leaders say this massive growth will likely tax an already straining infrastructure.

TONY LAMORENA: Public works is in the process now of developing a comprehensive master plan for improving our roadways. The port authority just completed their master plan which calls for $195 million to improve their infrastructure. Right now the military has stated that their going to be bringing in an average of about 74,023 containers during the construction phase and then a sustainable level of 50,000 thereafter. So we’re also expecting on the civilian side doubling, possibly even tripling.

CATHERINE NORTON: It is a worry the military shares.

MAJOR GENERAL DAVID BICE: We’re cognizant of the financial, economic challenges facing the government of Guam and the people of Guam and that gives us impetus in terms of the inter-agency taskforce to take a look at the role the federal government can be doing both in directly supporting Department of Defense — you know this is not just pure DOD effort, but because DOD relies on other federal agencies either for the environment studies that were doing or indirectly through Department of Homeland Security, Department of Labor, Department of Justice — all those activities that have an indirect support to Department of Defense.

But also too, we are looking at what role the Department, excuse me, the federal government will be playing to support GovGuam.

CATHERINE NORTON: By the year 2014 the island will have grown in population by 25 percent. How that will impact the other major component of the economy — tourism — will be a delicate balancing act.

CLIFF GUZMAN: Tourism is right now our number one industry and so that connection has to be balanced because we can’t look at this military buildup as one economic linchpin replacing another economic linchpin because there has billions of dollars invested in our tourism industry so balancing that is a very important piece of this.

CATHERINE NORTON: When 90 percent of Guam’s tourists come from Japan, some are concerned that relocating U.S. Marines to Guam will tarnish the island’s reputation as a pristine and safe family destination.

So while economically a 15-billion dollar Military buildup may bode well for Guam, its impact to Guam’s billion dollar tourism industry must be weighed against other economic opportunities.

CLIFF GUZMAN: The concern is whether or not an influx of some 30,000 people onto the island is going to have an effect — a detrimental effect on those visitors from Japan or Taiwan or the Philippines who come out here to visit. And so the cultural aspect is so important. If we don’t try to preserve what we can then — you know the sun, sand and sea is not going to be enough, it will never be enough because people are looking for an experience beyond just the beach.

CATHERINE NORTON: It is that effort to balance a massive military buildup on a beautiful tourist-dependent island that will be the focus of many of Guam’s leaders. This military buildup will reshape the economy and the lives of most Guamanians. The push now among those residents and their leaders is to ensure it is a change for the better.

Reporting for the Online NewsHour, in cooperation with Guam Public Radio KPRG, I am Catherine Norton.

Editor’s Note: This story was produced in partnership with the National Minority Consortia.