Michael Sammartino heard about Saipan from a shipbuilder in Alabama. The shipbuilder knew a guy who was bringing ships to the island, and he put Sammartino in touch.
The next thing Sammartino knew, it was October 2007, and he was out near Guam, on an island with a beautiful turquoise lagoon and crumbling infrastructure, trying to convince the local government to borrow low-interest money to fix things. It didn’t work.
Saipan is part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — a US protectorate that has been politically connected with Uncle Sam since the end of World War II — and it has problems.
Electricity is generated by decrepit engines, some 40 years old, so the power’s always going out. There’s poor sewage treatment and a dearth of potable water. Cash shortages are caused by declining tourism and industry, not to mention the government’s inability to collect overdue bills, since everyone is related to someone who can keep their power from being shut off.
“It’s like Rhode Island,” says Sammartino. “Everyone’s got a cousin who works in government.”
Sammartino works for Independence Bank in East Greenwich, specializing in guaranteed lending programs — a pool of money for low-interest loans, backed by the feds, available for things like power plants and airport improvements.
As someone who works a lot in Alaska and the Caribbean, he thought he could use these loans to fix Saipan, and spent $45,000 traveling there twice (the second time this past January) to meet with government officials.
“We must have had 15 government meetings — then nothing,” says Sammartino. “We thought by now we’d be groundbreaking on projects.”
The last of this year’s government-backed money was gone two months ago, and Saipan didn’t get — or even ask for — any of it. Sammartino says he isn’t sure why. The island’s been burned by shady bankers in recent history, so perhaps the government thought this offer was too good to be true and had to be a fraud.
Or maybe it’s a more Rhode Island-y reason — that the loans weren’t good enough to be true since they have to be used for the public good, not to line pockets.
Still, Sammartino liked the island; it’s warm and friendly, he says, and there are some unexpected Rhode Island connections beyond the odd banking. Like Quonset huts, which are relics from World War II. And the Rhode Island Red is the rooster of choice for cockfighting on Saipan.
Cockfighting is legal there, and Sammartino thought he’d take in a fight one night during his second visit. But before he got there, he was called away to yet another meeting with yet another group of politicians.
The meeting moved from a favorite local restaurant to the restaurant’s back room/poker parlor, though ultimately it went nowhere. The power plant is still falling apart, and there still is no potable water.
Sammartino says he’s hopeful that one of these days, maybe after Saipan’s elections in November, the island’s political climate will change and interest in his loans will increase — maybe even in time for the next round of government-backed money, which comes available in 2009.