SALT LAKE CITY — Puerto Rico is ready to do more business with Utahns.
That was the message Wednesday from the secretary of Puerto Rico's Department of Economic Development and Commerce, who was visiting Salt Lake City.
"We want to send the message that Puerto Rico is open for business, investment and for tourism," said Manuel Laboy Rivera. "During this transformative moment, the government of Puerto Rico stands ready to partner with investors and businesses to be part of the transformation of the island's economy."
It’s been just over a year since Hurricane Maria devasted Puerto Rico, leaving the island of 3.3 million people without power for weeks, displacing tens of thousands of families and disrupting the country's economy. Recently, the U.S. territory received encouraging economic news when the Economic Development Bank for Puerto Rico published its Economic Activity Index that reflected a substantial improvement in the economy and country's treasury reported October revenue as the highest monthly tally in five years.
Rivera was in Utah for the State Economic Development Executives Network conference. The organization supports collaboration between top state economic development executives on priority concerns, including providing insights about how to measure their success and encourage effective investment of state dollars in economic development programs.
Rivera said Puerto Rico would like to work with Utah firms interested in exploring international markets and want to develop commerce channels in the Caribbean into Latin America. Similarly, such relations could open up opportunities for Puerto Rican companies to expand business and commerce on the U.S. mainland, he said.
"The way we see it, Puerto Rico is the natural bridge between the U.S. mainland and Latin America," Rivera added. "We know that a lot of companies in Utah export products and services. Puerto Rico can be a partner in such export activities."
He said part of the country's integrated economic development plan is to bolster manufacturing — the largest industry sector within the island's economy.
"(Manufacturing) represents 48 percent of our (gross domestic product)," he said. "The profile of our manufacturing sector is high technology, highly regulated properties — pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, biotechnology as well as aerospace are among the sectors represented in our profile."
He noted that incentives have been enacted to attract startups and entrepreneurs based in the "knowledge service sector," including working to become a key provider in blockchain technology — a distributed public database that keeps a permanent record of digital transactions.
"Blockchain is close to revolutionizing how transactions are being made between governments and the private sector and between the private sector and individuals," Rivera said. "Puerto Rico is well positioned to become a key player in terms of the blockchain."
During his two-day visit, Rivera convened with other economic development advocates from around the country to establish relationships he hopes will be of mutual benefit in the months and years to come.
"We are trying to unite efforts and strategies to address common (concerns) across the nation, including workforce development, the issue associated with tariffs and trade and opportunity zones," he said. "It was an opportunity to discuss subjects that are common among the states and the territories."
The way we see it, Puerto Rico is the natural bridge between the U.S. mainland and Latin America. We know that a lot of companies in Utah export products and services. Puerto Rico can be a partner in such export activities.
–Manuel Laboy Rivera
He said the meetings also included brainstorming sessions aimed at bringing increased economic development and business prosperity to territories and states alike. In particular, he said finding ways to create and sustain business partnerships with Utah companies was among the top priorities for the island.
Located in the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States located approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Miami. The island is still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Maria, which struck the island just two weeks after Hurricane Irma hit. Analysts estimate the damage from the storms at $43 billion and possibly higher.
Meanwhile, Rivera noted that currently, the U.S. government is planning to spend approximately $10 billion annually over the next decade to restore and improve the island's infrastructure — about 10 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. The funds will be used to enhance energy (utilities); water, wastewater and potable water; roads; bridges; ports; telecommunications; and solid waste management, he said.
"We'll also be investing in housing and economic development projects," he said. "We're talking about a massive amount of money that will make a huge difference. It's going to be transformative in nature."
On the issue of the island's standing within the American geopolitical fabric, he supports the idea of Puerto Rican statehood in the not-so-distant future.
He said Puerto Rico can be a “beacon of light” for the rest of Latin America as a new state. The current administration of Gov. Ricardo Rosello is supportive of congressional action to create a referendum for statehood in 2020, he said.
"We are a pro-statehood administration," Rivera said. "We believe that we should become the 51st state. We have earned it in many, many ways. We are U.S. citizens and the best way to secure equal rights and equality as U.S. citizens is to become a state of the union."