A visitor to Marica, a Brazilian city with a population of 140,000 located 60 kilometres (km) east of Rio de Janeiro, would be hard-pressed to see the city as the next Miami, with the similarities beginning and ending with its coastal location. But Lourival Casula, the city's secretary of economic development, is full of optimism. “We might not be famous yet, but soon the world will know about us,” he says.

It is in the nature of local officials to see their city as the centre of the universe and the next big thing, but Mr Casula has good reason for his beliefs. In 2006, Petrobras, the state-owned Brazilian energy giant, discovered oil in Santos Basin, 200km off Marica's coast. The discovery is, according to experts, the biggest in the western hemisphere in three decades, and it has transformed the city.

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Gold rush

The oil rush has caused Marica's population to swell by 62% in the past 10 years, making the city one of the fastest growing in Brazil.

As Marica's city hall data shows, in 2010 the municipal authorities received between 20 and 25 construction permit applications a week. Now, this figure is 15 times higher. According to Mr Casula, investments in the construction sector are in greatest demand. “People keep on moving. Finding an apartment for rent is virtually impossible,” says Mr Casula. He urges investors to look at the city's potential for new residential complexes.

This year the city will see construction start on its seaport, Porta Negra Terminal, which is expected to provide 13,000 construction jobs. When completed in 2016 the port will have the capacity to handle 850,000 barrels of oil a day, and will be the main point of distribution for the offshore oil wells. It will also have the capacity to handle 1 million containers a year. The project is funded by DTA Engenharia, a São Paulo-headquartered engineering firm, which is planning to invest an estimated $2.5bn in the project.

Planning for the future

While it might seem as if Marica won a lottery with the oil discovery, there is also anxiety as to how to make the most out of the situation. According to Mr Casula, the cities of Macae and Rio Das Ostras, both also in the state of Rio de Janeiro, serve as a cautionary tale that cities should not rely too heavily on oil-related revenue and investment. “These cities grew without control. And although they are rich they have a lot of problems with violence in favelas and unemployment,” says Mr Casula.

As part of its attempts to balance the city's economic development, Marica's city hall implemented a masterplan and designated five industrial zones along the city's main road. Additionally, the local authorities are planning to launch a number of leisure and tourism-oriented projects that include a new coastal avenue and an aquarium.

The city has also rolled out an initiative which has earned it the nickname the 'Brazilian Miami'. The project is aiming to open the city's water channels to boats.

Whether such moves will turn Marica into a tourist destination comparable to Miami remains to be seen, but by managing its new-found wealth in a structured, considered way, city officials seem to be on the right track when it comes to avoiding the 'oil curse' that has blighted other Latin American cities.