It’s clear from talking with Giuseppe Cicatelli, principal at investment firm Bacalia Group, that the Italian investor is an optimist at heart. He is among those who see the glass as half full, rather than half empty.
His enthusiasm about Puerto Rico is catching. “We have been investing in Puerto Rico since 2014 and we have a couple hundred employees in Puerto Rico now,” he said during an interview with THE WEEKLY JOURNAL.
“I was attracted by the opportunities on the island: a U.S. territory, rule of law, dollarized, quality workforce and many bilingual residents. It was a good time to come in,” he added.
Bacalia Group’s diverse $50 million investment portfolio on the island includes three marinas in the Fajardo area for 1,250 boats; Da House Hotel in Old San Juan with 45 rooms; Metro Medical Center in Bayamón, featuring doctors’ offices and various office spaces; and several car parks, totaling 4,000 spots in Hato Rey, Fajardo and Bayamón.
Cicatelli emphasized that neither he or Bacalia Group is an Act 20/22 grantee.
With Bacalia Group mainly based in Panama, the company’s investments there include Baru Fresh, a 250,000 square foot hydroponic farm, the largest in Panama, and is developing Agrorismo Villages, an ecofriendly retirement community on 151 acres in the Highlands of Chiquiri.
“We have kept a very low profile in Puerto Rico,” Cicatelli said, adding that they wanted to focus on their work rather than on marketing or publicity. “But now that the immediate crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is over, we want to participate in the public discussion on Puerto Rico’s economy, current business climate and the way forward.”
He pointed out that tourism has picked up very nicely and is the main driver in Puerto Rico’s new economy. He noted that their three marinas in Fajardo—Puerto Chico, Sea Lovers and Sardinera, as well as Da House Hotel are all tourism related. “I believe that nautical tourism is underdeveloped in Puerto Rico. We are betting a lot on the marinas and the role they play in tourism.”
For example, he pointed out that Puerto Rico’s marine tourism is very small compared to that of the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. “And yet there are about 100,000 boats in Puerto Rico. This is a great business opportunity and I believe Puerto Chico, near El Conquistador, can become an important tourist attraction in the east. There are many American tourists in the area,” he said.
“We can go beyond kayaking and day trips on sailboats and catamarans. The Virgin Islands have a lot yacht tourism. Boaters can go island hopping to Vieques, Culebra and the USVI, so that can be developed here too,” he said.
In terms of the future, Cicatelli said Sea Lovers Marina is about to open a new restaurant by Chef Myrta Perez Toledo of Pasión por el Fogón restaurant in Fajardo.
“[The former] Roosevelt Roads [base] in Ceiba is a very attractive site... We are looking at it,” he said. There are currently about 15 tenants on the premises, including the relocated ferry service between Ceiba and the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra, as well as several tourism-related businesses.
During a recent investment forum on Puerto Rico, sponsored by Bacalia Group, he said that the island’s economic indicators have been positive, “coming back to growth, pre-hurricane levels in just two years. That’s pretty fast compared with places like New Orleans, which took about eight to 13 years to recover” after Hurricane Katrina.
“This shows the resiliency of Puerto Rico, even without most of the federal funds being disbursed yet. That will come and the economy will continue to grow,” Cicatelli said. “The issue now is confidence. Puerto Rico is going through a crisis of confidence, especially with the recent news regarding alleged corruption in the government. People want to invest in Puerto Rico, but they are hesitant. We can’t let this be a self-fulfilling prophecy, like what is happening with demography. There are jobs here. There are opportunities,” he added.
He explained that it is important to change the current discourse inside and outside of Puerto Rico. “I am not one to judge on the corruption allegations, but corruption everywhere. I’m Italian and we have been dealing with Berlusconi for years,” he said with a laugh. Cicatelli was referring to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media tycoon and former Italian prime minister, who has had his share of controversies and legal problems related to corruption charges, among others.
“Let’s give confidence to the business community, inside and outside. I am betting on Puerto Rico and will continue to do so,” he said.