“On day one, there was zero electrical power, zero telecommunications, and zero expectation that businesses would be back in operation anytime soon.” Puerto Rico Secretary of Economic Development, Manuel A. Laboy Riviera shared this assessment of the economic climate following Hurricane Maria, in remarks before the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA), a Bureau of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and others during a “Rebuilding Puerto Rico Summit,” March 29 in San Juan.
Yet instead of simply painting a dismal picture of the recovery, the Secretary quickly added, “We truly believe this is a time of real opportunity.”
In the months following the September 2017 super storm, multiple U.S. organizations stepped up to assist – first in the form of humanitarian aid and now by offering crucial support for local businesses. As Puerto Rico’s recovery enters its eighth month, the need for redevelopment of the island’s infrastructure and economy looms large if Puerto Rico is to survive in the long term.
Among the first wave last November to reach out directly to the business community was Florida’s MBDA Export Center Operator Marie Gill who visited Puerto Rico on a mission to connect minority businesses with emerging reconstruction opportunities and disaster assistance for businesses. They traveled again to Puerto Rico in early March and connected with over 60 minority businesses at the EXPO Puerto Rico event at the Convention Center.
On March 29, Gill and her MBDA team were back for a third time to continue their “Rebuild Puerto Rico Initiative,” as a sponsor of the 2nd Edition of the “Rebuild Puerto Rico Reconstruction Summit” hosted by Miami-based Minority Chamber of Commerce (MCC). This event was in collaboration with other federal agencies such as FEMA, Army Corps of Engineers, HUD, the State’s Economic Development and Commerce Department, the City of Guaynabo, and other local government agencies, corporations, and minority business developers.
MCC’s well-timed visits were geared to bring together U.S. entrepreneurs and high-ranking officials including Secretary Laboy, as well as municipal government officials now focusing on jump starting investment and redevelopment in their local communities.
The MBDA Export Center is committed to the recovery and growth of minority business enterprises (MBEs) primarily in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). In addition to its free technical assistance services, and to strengthen its ability to serve MBEs, the Center partners with federal, state, and local government agencies, and various private sector programs with additional resources that help to leverage MBDA’s own menu of services, in order to have more impactful and positive outcomes for its clients.
The Florida MBDA Export Center also used the recent San Juan conference as an opportunity to invite key clients from the U.S. mainland in order to make direct B2B connections. “It’s been a win-win opportunity for everyone,” Gill said.
“We are passionate about minority entrepreneurship and growth, and so we are always seeking new and improved ways of strengthening our ability to provide excellence in helping MBEs to gain access to capital, access to contracts, and access to new and global markets. But we are even more vigilant at this time because the recent disasters have created a new wave of dire recovery needs among minority businesses in South Florida, Puerto Rico, and the USVI,” she continued.
During the visit, the MBDA Export Center team also focused on outreach to the City of Guaynabo, a municipality of almost 100,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of San Juan, to forge relations with its Mayor onHhAngel Pérez Otero.
Over a series of meetings at City Hall and a guided tour of Guaynabo, Gill and the Mayor discussed the release of $70 billion by the Federal Government which, according to Mayor Otero, is earmarked for redevelopment in the form of a major Community Development Block Grant for disaster relief. The CDBGR is funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The release of such funds is expected to begin in May 2018.
Mayor Otero advises that this grant funding is specifically earmarked for rebuilding, renovation, and rehabilitation of damaged homes, construction of new housing and infrastructure, as well as expansion of Guaynabo’s Foreign Trade Zone and export development program for local businesses.
“We had extremely fruitful talks with city officials in Guaynabo, and our Center is strategically positioned to support the participation of MBEs in that City’s redevelopment and expansion,” said Gill. As a result, the MBDA was able to identify opportunities to help facilitate the planned redevelopment and expansion of the city’s Foreign Trade Zone so that there can be a greater emphasis on exports.
Gill also noted that her MBDA Export Center is strategically positioned to partner with the City of Guaynabo to develop this export initiative, as her Center’s core mission is to help identify, screen, promote, and grow minority business enterprises (MBEs), as well as train and refer them to exporting resources, where necessary, to increase their ability to be globally competitive.
“The business community of Puerto Rico remains resilient,” she said. “Most of the businesses that have been hurt by the hurricanes, are minority owned and operated. They are at the core of Puerto Rico’s manufacturing, retail, and service sectors; they need financing to rebuild factories, rehire employees, replace inventories, reconnect with local and overseas suppliers of materials and services; make good on contracts that remain pending; and find new contracts to continue growing.
“And so many of the mare very interested to learn about new exporting opportunities,” Gill added. “The need for disaster preparedness, though not popular as a service request, is also quite evident among minority busineses.”
“Our meetings in San Juan and Guaynabo yielded a two-fold success,” Gill continued. “We made solid contacts with regard to helping local businesses take advantage of the MBDA’s disaster initiatives, while benefiting from our export development services; and secondly, we helped position MBEs on the mainland to partner with MBEs and others in Puerto Rico to participate in redevelopment services, construction, exporting, and federal contracting.
Also during this visit, Guaynabo Mayor Perez Otero invited the Florida MBDA Export Center to host a series of events in upcoming months, primarily including a large-scale forum featuring educational and B2B seminars for local businesses in Guaynabo and elsewhere across Puerto Rico.
“We are so pleased to be able to join the mayor in hosting such events that will provide excellent opportunities for businesses looking to be part the growth Guaynabo is anticipating.”
Gill also announced that her Florida Export Center has entered into a Collaborative Agreement with her sister agency, the MBDA Business Center in Puerto Rico. Jointly, they will assist each other in outreach, and in coordinating disaster assistance services to reach an even broader cross-section of affected MBEs in Puerto Rico.
The Guaynabo program will be a platform by which MBDA will share its expertise with local businesses in the areas of certification for government contracts, financing, strategic and export plans, sourcing business opportunities, how to prepare bids–the full range of services provided by the MBDA.
Gill has been affiliated with the MBDA in providing services and bringing MBDA’s programs to minority business enterprises in the State of Florida and the Southeast Region since the 1980s.
According to Gill, “We are here to help and serve. We understand the needs and strengths, as well as the challenges and opportunities that will either hinder or strengthen MBEs in their pathways to success and growth.”
Gill & Associates, Inc. is a specialty consulting firm that develops, administers, and manages strategic growth and economic development initiatives for small and minority businesses, government agencies, corporations, and educational institutions that operate in the local and global economies. Visit their website.