Residents on the Pacific island of Guam are bracing for big changes. Four years from now, the U.S. military plans to transfer thousands of Marines from the Japanese island of Okinawa. The move is part of a larger military realignment in the region and it is one that could reshape the future of the U.S. territory.
All over Guam, the big topic of discussion is the military - and the U.S. Marines moving to the U.S. territory from the Japanese island of Okinawa.
At a diner in central Gaum, Robert Jones says it is a good thing for the island.
"It's going to drive the economy up and that's what we need right now, you know," he said.
Eight thousand Marines are expected to move to Guam over the next four years. The transfer is part of the Pentagon's effort to reduce the troop numbers on Okinawa, where the U.S. has maintained bases since World War II. Most of the Marines will move to new facilities in the northern part of Guam, but Carl Petersen with the Chamber of Commerce says the effects of the buildup will extend beyond military gates.
"Literally everybody who wants to get a job will get a job," he said.
Petersen says the buildup will create 30,000 new jobs on the island. More than half will be temporary construction jobs mostly taken by foreign laborers. But Petersen says permanent, high-paying jobs will go to island residents. He says those jobs, combined with the business from Marines, will help improve an economy suffering from 8 percent unemployment.
"They will become our customer which means we will have greater economy of scale. That will benefit all of us here," he said.
Jim Espaldon is a senator in the territorial legislature and helps oversee the island's infrastructure. He says Guam is not ready for the buildup. He points to an environmental impact statement that says the buildup will attract thousands of military family members and construction workers. The population could increase by 40 percent.
"We are not ready and we are getting no solid assistance from our federal government," he said.
Espaldon says the population surge will overwhelm the island's only public hospital, cause gridlock on major roads and strain the only port. Container shipments there are expected to jump from 100,000 to 600,000 a year, once construction for the buildup begins.
U.S. troops have been on the tropical island for more than a century. After World War II, and well into the 1980s, the island was seen as an outpost of the Cold War and at times more than 20,000 troops were based there. But starting in the 1990s, the Department of Defense closed bases, reduced troop numbers and shut down old facilities. Now there are about 15,000 troops and military family members on the island.
The U.S. and Japan have pledged $10 billion to build or renovate facilities for the Marines but they have not guaranteed funds for infrastructure projects in the civilian community. Senator Judy Guthertz, who oversees the legislative committee on the buildup, says that is partly because Guam's hands are tied, politically. It does not have a vote in Congress, and Guamanians cannot vote for President.
"Guam is U.S. territory. We fly the U.S. flag, we proudly fly the flag. We're patriotic Americans but oftentimes we're the forgotten Americans," said Guthertz.
The military says the federal government is trying to secure money to improve the civilian infrastructure. The Defense Department has consulted the governor, the legislature, and community leaders frequently over the past several years as the plans have been drafted.
The military already controls about a third of the island, and will need to acquire more land for the buildup, which goes beyond the Marines. The Army is building a missile defense system on the island and the Air Force is adding more drones. The Navy is expanding its port so it can accommodate visiting aircraft carriers.
University of Guam Professor Victoria Lola Leon Guerrero says that expansion threatens the native Chamorro culture. She worries the military will take ancestral land from Chamorro families.
"These families and their homes are not visible on these maps but they live there. That is their land. They have their homes built. They are being approached by the military as we speak, to give up their land," she said.
The plans for the buildup are not set in stone. The military frequently reviews the plans and consults with island officials and residents about possible changes.
And a new government in Japan may seek significant changes. Officials in Tokyo are reviewing the plans and many politicians in the governing coalition want to move even more Marines off Okinawa, something the United States says is not practical and could delay the Guam buildup. The Japanese government plans to release its recommendations for moving the Marines in May.