Coronavirus has posed a significant economic challenge to the US island state of Puerto Rico. Yet, following the devastating hurricane Maria in 2017, which led to more than $100bn in estimated damages, the island is no stranger to sudden disruption.
The current crisis provides an opportunity to underscore the island’s resilience, says Invest Puerto Rico’s CEO, Rodrick Miller, who shares his thoughts on how to spread investment to marginalised communities.
Q: How have you adjusted to developments within these turbulent last few months?
A: Covid-19 really came out of what feels like nowhere. It’s adversely impacted businesses and society in a way that we couldn’t have imagined just six months ago.
We have tried to reposition Puerto Rico in this context, and underscore the island’s resilience in our strategy, marketing communication and business development efforts.
There is a recognition that [for a long time] Puerto Rico has had to grapple with crises, whether it’s the financial crisis, earthquakes or hurricanes. As a result there’s been some muscle memory that’s developed here on the island.
When there is a crisis that happens, we know how to respond to it. We know how to get it under control and move forward. I think what Covid has shown is that there's no business or economy that's immune to force majeure [unforeseen circumstances].
In this environment for us in Puerto Rico, it’s really an opportunity to highlight our resilience and ability to bounce back.
Q: Has your sector focus changed due to the crisis?
A: We’re going to continue to focus on our target sectors, [which are] primarily in knowledge services: IT and software, [and] professional and financial services. The good thing about those services is that they're not intensive in terms of either infrastructure demand or overall capital investment.
We continue to try and figure out how to help those companies realise they can operate in Puerto Rico at a fraction of what it would cost them in other places around the United States, and have access to a great quality of life.
We’re trying to position Puerto Rico as an optimum remote working location. For professionals that are considering remote working locations – whether they speak Spanish or English – Puerto Rico offers a lot.
We’re also making a strategic shift to position Puerto Rico as a solution to address pharmaceutical supply chain challenges. Puerto Rico has a long established history as a leader in the pharmaceutical medical device sector – 90% of the pacemakers in the world are developed in Puerto Rico.
[Puerto Rico has] 14 of the top 20 largest pharmaceutical companies on the island. We’ve already got a proven capacity, and that’s what we’re elevating in this Covid environment.
Q: How is Puerto Rico trying to refine its tourism offering for a post-Covid world?
A: Our organisation doesn’t focus on tourism – we have a sister agency called Discover Puerto Rico for that. That said, Puerto Rico has never really met its complete potential.
Tourism is only about 7% of the island’s economy. There's an opportunity for niche tourism opportunities in Puerto Rico.
We are targeting remote workers and retirees. There’s also a lot being done around the LGBTQ community as a targeted population for visiting the island, and we’ve had tremendous success in that vein. We’re also seeing more and more family-oriented tourism coming to the island.
We want to continue to raise our profile and then, as people begin to travel again, make sure there are options in Puerto Rico that are safe and fun.
Q: How can IPAs spread investment to marginalised communities?
A: Historically, investment goes to places that are best apt to receive [it]. The role of IPAs is to ensure a more inclusive approach so that you can actually elevate the competitive advantages that marginalised and disenfranchised communities have.
It's really important to have an asset map. In many cases, IPAs don’t do enough to really understand the assets that are in those communities.
Second, having an approach to selling your market from a competitiveness vantage point is absolutely vital. So what are the strategic investments that IPAs and governments should challenge in these communities to ensure that they're able to compete over the long term?
The third thing is a matter of commitment. A commitment to recognising that the long-term competitiveness of a region, state or country cannot be optimal without the participation of these underdeveloped communities.
I don’t think that’s a perspective that’s often been touted or embraced in the economic development world because so much of our world is about how quickly you can get a deal done.
From a government and policy perspective, ensuring there’s a long-term commitment to investing in vital infrastructure [is crucial]. In many cases the public sector has failed to make the required investments for these communities to be at par so they can adequately compete.
Rodrick Miller is the CEO of Invest Puerto Rico.
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