Manuel Cidre, the designated secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC by its Spanish acronym), and Jon Borschow, chairman of Foundation for Puerto Rico (FPR), recently held a virtual forum to discuss economic opportunities for the island.
In the preface, Brian English —senior advisor for Development at FPR—, indicated that the topics entailed “transformative ideas to propel and accelerate the economic development of the island, both for recovery and long-term development. These discussions have been brought together by influential leaders in important positions in Puerto Rico —what their plans are, what their agendas are— and bring leaders like yourself together in these discussions, because ultimately we need to be developing relationships, partnerships, multisectoral alliances.”
Cidre observed that although the island is slated to receive roughly $64 billion in federal funds for the next 10 years to improve its infrastructure and foster economic development, there are “many challenges ahead,” such as the nearly 12 percent drop in population in the past decade, as confirmed by U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 results. That, he said, “should be a source of inspiration” to work towards a prosperous Puerto Rico with a renewed fiscal and economic performance.
With this in mind, he highlighted five key pillars. The first, he said, is to transform the local business ecosystem by promoting an ambitious entrepreneurial mindset.
“Puerto Rican entrepreneurs are not alone in the world; they must see the world as their final client and insert themselves precisely in a task of being number one if they are a local supplier, but… aspire tomorrow that those companies that today operate in Puerto Rico can think about expanding, and for that local management on the hand of strong local capital to be able to acquire and operate them as Puerto Rican businesses, adding wealth to the country,” he asserted, adding that he sees federal funding as a tool to “transform and create internal wealth.”
Another issue is attracting and retaining U.S. and foreign businesses, stating that he diverges from categorizing American enterprises as foreign entities, in contrast to the federal government. Borschow underscored that reshoring American manufacturing companies from Asia is “one of the few things in which there is consensus in Washington, D.C.” and that Puerto Rico’s geographic position and relation to the U.S. mainland gives it a unique advantage over its competitors.
Along this line, Cidre urged seeing reshoring beyond attracting biopharmaceuticals. “Recently, General Motors in Detroit had to reduce its production capacity due to the lack of microchips, microchips that are made 100 percent in China. So, reshoring includes elements that have never been seen before, such as microchips,” he said. “Puerto Rico is positioned as a very viable alternative, even above many states in the nation.”
Moreover, he said that Puerto Rico cannot rely on being a low-tax jurisdiction because “anybody can replicate that effort.” Instead, the official said that Puerto Rico needs to provide incentives focused on “the economic reality at hand,” plus improve its permitting process and the ease of doing business on the island, a recurring complaint in the private sector. “Yes, we want to be a low-cost jurisdiction, but we also want to be an agile country, a country of respect, an educated country, a safe country. The economic development umbrella goes far beyond simply bringing jobs or giving tax incentives,” he affirmed.
The fourth pillar Cidre discussed is using funds from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) to transform the human resources base for existing and future businesses. In March, the secretary-designate announced $4 million in WIOA funds for employers, in addition to the more than $7.1 million approved a year prior under the same law to avoid layoffs, and $65 million under the Coronavirus Relief Fund, as indicated by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.
Lastly, Cidre pointed to House Resolution 1740, presented by Rep. Jenniffer González (R-PR) in the U.S. Congress, which seeks to designate all of Puerto Rico as an Opportunity Zone (OZ). To date, roughly 96 percent of the island is a certified OZ, or economically distressed communities, which allows for tax benefits and incentives for companies and investors to develop projects in these zones.
“And Jenniffer González’s project falls along that line to attract small and medium-sized American businesses that could establish themselves in that low-income and economically depressed area to attract and create jobs in those specific areas,” he said. However, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the development of Opportunity Zones has been delayed, not just in Puerto Rico, but across the nation.