US Department of Commerce to invest $1.2 million in Puerto Rico’s opportunity zone

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By Caribbean News Now contributor

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico is in the midst of political and economic turmoil with billions of dollars in debt, still recovering from Hurricane Maria besides legislators push for Statehood. In this uncharted terrain, US Department of Commerce is investing $1.2 million in Puerto Rico’s Opportunity Zone.

“Even two years later, President Donald Trump is still working diligently every day to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s economy after the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

Current protest action and calls for Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rossello to resign amid corruption and scandal has fallen on death ears.  Rising unemployment (9 percent), migration (600,000) jobless rate of 8.5 percent, poverty and equality, the debt crisis, mismanagement of the economy,  money laundering, theft, wire fraud, conspiracy, and contempt amid indictments are major factors for thousands of protesters that have jammed the streets in San Juan.

Puerto Rico’s governor tone-deaf to calls for resignation amid sustained protests

“There has never been a political crisis of this dimension,” Gustavo Velez, founder of Inteligencia Economica, told CBS MoneyWatch. We still haven’t recovered from hurricane Maria, and we are heading toward the second anniversary of the impact of the hurricane. So people are skeptical and cautious, and there is a lot of anxiety.”

“I have clients in retail, restaurants, supermarkets, and in most sectors of the economy — we haven’t yet seen any impact on consumer behavior. Other than the two cruise ships, the economy so far is behaving more or less OK,” he said. 

The tourism sector, which was showing signs of recovery, Discover Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico’s destination marketing organization, announced the rollout of Puerto Rico’s brand campaign: “Have We Met Yet?” focusing on “the hospitable and welcoming nature of the island’s people.”

Approximately $20 billion in disaster funds from the department of housing and urban development, has been assigned but only $1.5 billion is approved for spending, unfortunately, the flow of money is slow in coming, to impact dire economic situations.

While such trends, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced last week, that the Department’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) is awarding a $1.2 million grant to Operation Hope, Inc., of Atlanta, Georgia, to provide up to 300 technical assistance workshops in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico to help small businesses and entrepreneurs grow and succeed following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. The project, to be located in a Tax Cuts and Jobs Act designated Opportunity Zone, will be matched with nearly $1.8 million in local funds and will be undertaken in partnership with Banco Popular.

“The workshops will focus on helping the Commonwealth’s sole proprietors, mom and pop/family businesses, micro-businesses, and other innovative entrepreneurs. The participating small and micro businesses will be drawn from tourism/hospitality, small scale manufacturing, agriculture, commerce, and traditional business service industries. Technical assistance will focus on continuity activities such as business expansion, new business opportunity building, preparedness, and resilience. 

“Operation HOPE is working to disrupt poverty and empower inclusion for low and moderate-income youth and adults. A key component of Operation HOPE’s delivery of this technical assistance is its Digital Entrepreneur Training Program (ETP), designed to enable these underserved and developing small businesses to expand their markets through online transactions,” EDA said.

This project is funded under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (PL 115-123) (PDF), in which Congress appropriated to EDA $600 million in additional Economic Adjustment Assistance (EAA) Program (PDF) funds for disaster relief and recovery as a result of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, wildfires and other calendar year 2017 natural disasters under the Stafford Act.

Currently, Puerto Rico’s population of 3.2 million face dire economic stagnation and dependence on the federal government for the inflow of money and debt relief, but so far, local government reform measure is lacking.

Former housing secretary and Democrat presidential candidate Julián Castro has called for Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló to resign amid mass protests that have recently consumed the island. “Unfortunately, just at a time when Puerto Rico needs very strong leadership, it doesn’t have that,” he said.

Congresswoman Jenniffer González-Colón said, “These new 300 workshops that will be held in Puerto Rico for small and medium businesses providing technical assistance for business expansion, tourism and agriculture after the hurricane, I urge everyone to take advantage of this opportunity and get back to normal after the hurricane.”

Nevertheless, the funding announced goes to a designated Opportunity Zone, created by President Donald J. Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 to spur economic development by giving tax incentives to investors in economically distressed communities nationwide. In June 2019, EDA added Opportunity Zones as an Investment Priority, which increases the number of catalytic Opportunity Zone-related projects that EDA can fund to fuel greater public investment in these areas. 

According to secretary of commerce Ross, “Even two years later, the president Trump is still working diligently every day to help rebuild Puerto Rico’s economy after the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria,” he continued. “Providing small businesses and budding entrepreneurs in disaster-impacted Puerto Rico with the technical assistance they need to succeed will help the island’s economy recover and become stronger than ever before.”

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