Cidre: ‘Ramping up pharma production requires permanent air hub’
Department of Economic Development and Commerce Secretary-designate Manuel Cidre will head to Washington, D.C. next month to lobby — along with Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González — for the permanence of Puerto Rico’s status as a hub for foreign air carriers.
Extending the two-year waiver that the U.S. Department of Transportation granted the island in April 2020 is the tool Puerto Rico needs to be competitive enough to attract new production lines from pharmaceutical and medical device companies in the long-term, he said during an interview with this media outlet.
Last year, the US government issued a challenge for manufacturing companies to “Fire China and hire Puerto Rico,” to bring production closer — or back to — the mainland. Puerto Rico saw that call as an opportunity to become a nearshore location for such activity.
“What the phrase says is one thing, and another thing is what can be done from the competitive point of view. Puerto Rico isn’t alone in that competition. It’s competing with the 50 continental US states and nearby jurisdictions such as the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Colombia, for example,” he said.
“Puerto Rico has to position itself as a different destination, and for that, it already has many biopharma and medical device operations. So, instead of thinking about attracting new plants — which can take six or seven years to become a reality — Puerto Rico could prepare itself to increase production capacity at existing facilities, and that way boost well-paid jobs,” said Cidre, a private-sector executive who came out of retirement to accept the call from Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.
He said gaining permanent permission to allow foreign air carriers to provide certain expanded cargo and passenger transfer services at Puerto Rico’s airports — Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Carolina; the Mercedita International Airport in Ponce; and the Rafael Hernández International Airport in Aguadilla — will be the key to getting companies such as DHL, UPS and FedEx to open storage facilities to store goods.
Cidre’s expectation is to get a decision this year.
DDEC’s organizational structure
Meanwhile, Cidre said his immediate agenda includes finishing the work of his predecessor, Manuel Laboy, of structuring the DDEC’s (as the agency is known in Spanish) organizational chart.
“I was handed an organizational chart which functionally seems to be on track but that requires identifying the resources to fill a number of positions. However, because the DDEC’s budget has been consistently shrinking, those days of hiring people just to hire them are over. We have to fill our vacancies with resources with enough capacity to manage more than one task at a time,” he said, noting he is placing special emphasis on strengthening the areas of business intelligence, research, statistics, and the department’s incentives office.
The DDEC manages $112 million a year in federal and local incentives for a number of industries.
“The incentives program is not a bad program, but it could be improved by inserting some agility into the process because the time it takes to make decisions influences whether a company wants to come to Puerto Rico to do business,” he said.
Tourism Co. must unify sector
Finally, when asked about the status of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. — which is being merged into the DDEC, although there is a bill at the Legislature seeking to reverse that decision — Cidre said that whether it becomes an agency program or remains independent, its role should not change.
“The truth is that the current reality isn’t the same as it was four years ago. Now you have the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association, Discover Puerto Rico, and the Puerto Rico Tourism Business Council and the challenge is how to unify them,” he said.
“The agency, whether as a DDEC program, or on its own, needs to urge all of those components to work as a single team, for a single destination, with a single goal,” which is to promote Puerto Rico as a tourist destination post-COVID-19 pandemic.
Cidre said he favors initiatives that generate efficiencies, so if the Tourism Co. were to become a program within the DDEC, it would no longer have to deal with “back-end” expenses but focus on the task at hand.
“The Puerto Rico needed to face what’s ahead has to unite behind a common will and a common goal. If we try to do things as we have always done them, the possibilities don’t look good at all,” he said.