Marked as a crossroad for cultural and agricultural exchanges of Pangasinan, the Ilocos, and the Cordilleras, the town of Binalonan, a first-class municipality in the province of Pangasinan, has transformed from an uninhabited forested area to a lush agricultural community to a burgeoning rural town. Bordered by bustling municipalities and cities of eastern Pangasinan, Binalonan strives to make a name for itself. With growing infrastructures, developing services, and connecting roads and highways, the town is catching up to its vision of becoming a progressive university town.
The current mayor of Binalonan, Ramon V. Guico III, answered the call to public service when he ran for Vice Mayor in 2007. He was elected later as Mayor in 2010, a position he holds until now. “It’s my hometown,” he simply says. “I wanted to give back to my roots and prove that when you have a clear vision of what you want to do, you can achieve it.” With a doctorate degree in Public Management from Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM), he set about the task of further improving his hometown.
Founded in November 10, 1834, Binalonan consists of 24 barangays spread over its 8,400-hectare land area. Its name is derived from the Ilokano term balon, in Tagalog baon, which means “packed lunch.” It is said that the workers of a Spanish land-owner would rest and have their lunch underneath the trees located at heart of the land where the municipality stands today. Binalonan is a term in Ilocano and Pangasinan signifying a place where people come to bring and eat their lunch. The town traces its roots to the Ilocano people who migrated due to the drastic effects of colonial policies involving taxes and to find greener pasture in the uncultivated lands of eastern Pangasinan.
We do not have the mountains, the beaches, the sea, or any natural attractions. Therefore, the best resource is the people.
Since then, Binalonan has risen from a poor town to a promising agricultural municipality with rice crops as one of its main products. It continues to produce sugar cane, an ingredient used for basi (sugar cane wine), suka (vinegar), and muscovado (dark brown sugar), which are some of the town’s top products. It was in 1989 when the third-class municipality of Binalonan graduated into a first-class municipality, owing to its rising income and population. “But I told myself that we should not stop with just being a first-class municipality,” Mayor Guico says.
Dwarfed by the more progressive and populous City of Urdaneta and Municipality of Pozorrubio, with its high overseas remittances and high purchasing power, Binalonan fought to compete with her neighbors. “The challenge was how to make it more progressive, how to invite more establishments and such; because, before, there were only these mom-and-pop establishments, mga karinderya (small food stores), and anything you need you just buy from the market,” Mayor Guico says. Inspired by his travels locally and abroad, and armed with a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of the Philippines (UP), Mayor Guico dreamt of transforming Binalonan into a university town.
I believe so much in people empowerment—identify the talent, find the people who have the heart for public service and are willing to make sacrifices, group them together in a way that they complement each other, and finally, cast the vision and train them for it.
TAKING OFF WITH EDUCATION
Binalonan is a landlocked municipality in the central plains of Luzon. “I said we should identify the best resource of the town. We do not have the mountains, the beaches, the sea, or any natural attractions,” Mayor Guico recounts. “Therefore, the best resource is the people.”
In the early aughts, Binalonan experienced a problem when students, after finishing high school, went to Baguio and Manila for college. Eventually, they looked for work outside the municipality. “There was a ‘brain drain, even the skilled workers were scarce’ and all we had left here were the skilled workers because the professionals and educated went outside the town,” the local chief executive says. To entice them to return and also make the local Binalonians stay, Mayor Guico decided to turn Binalonan into a vibrant and bustling educational town similar to Los Baños, Laguna, and Baguio City. Mayor Guico also drew inspiration from Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts where Boston University and Harvard University are located, respectively; and South Bend, Indiana, where Notre Dame University is.
Thus, the University of Eastern Pangasinan (UEP) was established in 2005 by the municipal government of Binalonan. A higher education institution, UEP offers undergraduate programs recognized by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and technical-vocational courses accredited by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA). With the goal of providing quality and accessible education to all, the UEP was previously subsidized by the municipality. After the promulgation of the Unified Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education Act (UniFAST) or Republic Act (R.A.) No. 10687, Binalonan applied for Student Financial Assistance Programs (StuFAPs). Under the law, the modes of StuFAPS include scholarships, grants-in-aid, student loans, and other specialized forms. The Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act or R.A. No. 10931 signed by President Rodrigo Duterte also grants budget allocation for state universities and colleges (SUCs) and local universities and colleges (LUCs), to which UEP belongs to. CHED also has scholarships under Iskolar ng Bayan and the Tulong Dunong Program, and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) also offers education assistance.
Through these measures, everyone is ensured equal access to quality education.
As a licensed pilot, Mayor Guico also decided to put up an aviation school. Together with the WCC Aviation Company, the WCC Aeronautical and Technological College (WCC ATC) was opened in 2008 after beginning as a training school in 2005. It is the only higher education institution offering undergraduate aviation programs in Regions I, II, the Cordillera Autonomous Region, and Northern Manila. Mayor Guico himself holds a Bachelor of Science in Aviation from the said school. The WCC ATC boasts of, and has access to, a 950-meter privately operated runway, constructed in 2004. “The public university caters to those not interested in aviation and those who are hard up in life since the tuition is affordable or even free if there are available slots,” the municipal mayor explains. “The pilot school is different because it is private with higher tuition.”
Today, the WCC ATC has students hailing from all over the Philippines, and even from Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Middle East. These students, some of whom are children of expats, pass four years of their schooling in Binalonan thereby creating a market demand for basic needs and supplies. “That’s how we were able to create the niche,” Mayor Guico says.
The innovative mayor tailors the town planning according to his vision, making sure there are schools in each area, providing access and connectivity to all. They are developing the Government Center for Education (GCE), a nine-hectare area dedicated to educational productivity. The GCE should contain the UEP, the Department of Education (DepEd) Pangasinan Division II Office, the North Central Elementary School, and the Juan G. Macaraeg National High School (JGMNHS). The Doña Eva M. Macapagal Memorial Library Hub, named after the late Evangelina de la Cruz Macaraeg-Macapagal, former first lady of President Diosdado Macapagal, is found at the JGMNHS. Binalonan is Doña Eva’s hometown and her daughter is former President, now House Speaker, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who came to the inauguration of the library in 2009. At the town center, there is also a Techno Hub and Community e-Center to provide computer facilities and internet access to the Binalonians.
CONVERGING TOWARDS PROGRESS
The development of connecting highways such as the Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEx) and the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEx) contributed to the advancement of the town. Labeled before as the “Gateway to Manaoag and Baguio City,” Binalonan is today more connected to other regions as it has more access to the airports, the seaports, and the rest of Luzon through the TPLEx and SCTEx.
“We’ve become a convergence town where all the great minds meet,” Mayor Guico proudly states. At the municipal grounds, the Convergence Meta Sculpture was recently installed to mark the significance of Binalonan as a convergence point for other towns and provinces. As a result, the town-wide urban planning included the mass development of its parks and plaza, inviting all both locals and non-locals to stay and stopover in Binalonan. The municipal government also conducts character formation sessions, especially for teachers and government officials; youth empowerment seminars; and other training programs. The Ramon J. Guico, Sr. Sports and Civic Center was built for large assemblies such as the Governor’s Cup, Mayor’s Cup, and Inter-agencies and LGU sports fests. There is also the Tents Event Center to accommodate other big events. The town also plans to build a Sports Complex with a semi-Olympic size pool and a track oval. The track oval is going to be located in the Government Center for Education.
At the Sports and Civic Center, the Siak ni Carlos Bulosan musical play was held. Carlos Bulosan, a native of Binalonan who migrated to the US, is a poet, writer, and activist, known for the semi-autobiographical novel, America is in the Heart. Serving to promote widespread knowledge of their local town hero, the play also signified the growing appreciation for arts and culture, and the Binalonan heritage. The town also conducted the Pinarsua Art Exhibit and Festival, encouraging the creative minds of the locals. The Heritage Museum and Museum for Modern Filipino Art form part of the long-term plans of the municipal government. Mayor Guico himself has his own personal art collection to support upcoming and already-renowned Filipino artists.
After finding its identity as a university town, Binalonan developed even further. “When students flock in, you create a need for dormitories, housing, and transportation. There’s a need for supplies stores. That’s where it all started,” Mayor Guico says. This created more jobs for the locals and more opportunities for livelihood apart from agricultural means. “We think of Binalonan as one big campus just like UP, not the traditional notion of a campus which is enclosed,” Mayor Guico explains. “The facilities are spread all over the town so the next challenge is connectivity, so we’re thinking of a loop system like the UP Ikot (jeepneys that ply within the university),” he adds.
On October 26, 2018, Binalonan was the third to launch the GrabTrike service after Angeles City, Pampanga, and Balanga, Bataan. It is the first to use the premium tricycle, featuring a three-wheeled Italian-manufactured scooter, larger than the traditional tricycle. Around 100 tricycles with franchises issued by the municipal government participated in a motorcade around the municipality. Available for 24 hours, this serves to promote connectivity and convenient transportation for all. “We’re also promoting walking, which is why we are building a lot of sidewalks,” Mayor Guico pronounces. The municipal government also fixed existing sidewalks, installed streetlights, and constructed drainage systems. To ensure the safety of the people, Binalonan has a 24-hour patrol and a Quick Response Center. It provides health and rescue services with a Rural Health Unit (RHU), EMS and ambulances, a birthing home, and a dental clinic.
Binalonan is also a clean and environmentally-friendly municipality. Hence, it was awarded as one of the Most Beautiful and Cleanest Town in the Philippines in 1968. As testament to this, the Heritage Park inside the municipal grounds has about 48 centennial acacia trees with a promenade featuring a rock garden and a koi pond. The town hosts the annual nationwide Inter-Club Bonsai Exhibition and Competition at the park, together with the Bonsai and Suiseki Alliance of the Philippines, Inc. (BSAPI). The municipal government also practices the Anti-Dugyot Program, which prohibits tarpaulins, promotes alternative means of packaging instead of plastic, and ensures a clean and green municipality. They closed the open dumpsite in one of their barangays with plans to convert it into an eco-park. There is also the development of the Green Valley Eco and Adventure Park of Binalonan at the northeast portion of the municipality.
CONTINUING ON WITH EXCELLENCE
“It all starts with a vision and how you cascade that vision down to the department heads, the LGU employees, the barangays, and the townspeople—all the stakeholders,” Mayor Guico says. “I believe so much in people empowerment—identify the talent, find the people who have the heart for public service and who are willing to make sacrifices, group them together in a way that they complement each other, and finally, cast the vision and train them for it,” he explains. Highlighting his passion for empowering the people, the municipal government has a Small Action Force, which allows jobs for the little people of Binalonan, neighboring towns, and helps those in the fringes of society.
In November 2018, Binalonan was conferred its fourth Seal of Good Local Governance Award by the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG). The municipality has also received the Seal of Good Housekeeping from the DILG in 2011, the 2nd Runner-up for Most Statistically Developed LGU in the province of Pangasinan from 2013 to 2015, Gold Plaque Awardee under the “CLUP Zero Backlog Project” by the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board in 2013, the Seal of Child-friendly Local Governance from the Council of the Welfare of Children in 2014, the Most Compliant LGU in the Municipal Category at the PhilHealth Agila Awards in 2015, and the Hall of Fame Award at the National Quality Corn Achievers Award in 2016, among other numerous awards.
Binalonan continues to improve as more infrastructures are built, affordable healthcare is provided, livelihood is improved, and jobs and education are made accessible to all. “The respect that people give you, because you did a good job in developing the town, outweighs any material benefit, if there is, in public service,” Mayor Guico declares. “It is the love and respect your constituents give you, which is the best legacy.” Guided by its core values of Maka-Diyos, Marunong, Malinis (God-fearing, Educated, Clean), this humble municipality remains a Godly town, doing what is right; upholding education to enhance its human resources; and sustaining cleanliness of the body, the environment, and the infrastructure. These values encompass the beliefs and direction of Binalonan, so that these can be passed on to future generations.
“We came up with the battle cry of ‘Binalonan, Ang Galing,’” Mayor Guico says. “It is a vision we want to achieve, that in everything, we want to do things with excellence. That’s the only way you can be a cut above the rest.” The municipal government commits to excellence when they do projects and build facilities. At the same time, it is a unified sentiment that all Binalonians know and understand. Everyone is able to express this slogan wholeheartedly, even claiming it as a hashtag on social media. “Tuloy-tuloy na mas gumagaling dapat ang pananaw sa mga gagawin natin (Continued excellence should be our view in all that we do),” Mayor Guico concludes. — MAIELLE MONTAYRE