Bankole: Puerto Rico, Detroit face similar economic issues

Bankole Thompson

Rodrick Miller, the former president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, is leading a new effort beginning March 1 to bring business and investment capital to the island of Puerto Rico, much in the same way he did for Detroit.  

In this Oct. 5, 2017 file photo, a Puerto Rican national flag is mounted on debris of a damaged home in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in the seaside slum La Perla, San Juan, Puerto Rico. An independent investigation ordered by Puerto Rico’s government estimates that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria.

Miller has been tapped as the new CEO of Invest Puerto Rico largely because of his experience in dealing with similar challenges in Detroit as well as Flint, where he was also economic adviser to Mayor Karen Weaver.

Miller’s three-year contract allows him to set the terms of economic development and lead the recovery of an island that is still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Maria, which dealt its economy an estimated $43 billion hit. 

Rodrick Miller

“This role is similar to Detroit in that it's about attracting new jobs and investment. However, the context is quite different in that it encompasses both rural and urban development opportunities,” Miller said in an interview.

Helping an island map out a vibrant economic future for its 3.3 million people is going to be challenging.

“The primary challenges that I see in Puerto Rico right now can be grouped into two categories: economic challenges and transactional capacity. From an economic perspective, issues such as the cost and continuity of electricity, the need for significant reinvestment in diverse types of large-scale public infrastructure, and the governmental financial crisis represent significant hurdles to attracting private investment,” Miller said.

“The lack of governmental income for reinvestment in critical projects is further fueled by massive population decline. In other words, you have a declining tax base trying to pay off a debt that was created by a much larger group." 

Just like he touted inclusion in Detroit, Miller plans to do the same in Puerto Rico.

“Inclusion has to be intentional. Currently, I'm developing the action plan for Invest Puerto Rico and a key pillar of the strategy has to be around bringing in jobs that are accessible to Puerto Ricans across the spectrum,” Miller said.

 He said the inclusion strategy has to focus on access to education, workforce development, entrepreneurship and jobs. 

 “So, I will be working diligently to get to all parts of the island to find out what is going on in the diverse communities. I've met the governor, Pedro Rosello, and my counterparts at several of the partner agencies, and they all seemed tremendously committed to aggressively tackling the challenge of complete and robust recovery together,” Miller said.

Still, his work in Detroit provides the instructive lens through which Miller said he wants to lead Puerto Rico’s renaissance.

“In Detroit, the major challenge was issues of equity. There was a constant pull and push between various forces, some societal and others institutional, to ensure that native Detroiters and black people were a part of the city's economic recovery,” Miller said. “The issue of inclusion goes against fundamental economics, in that as places increase in amenities and quality of service, costs must go up. The problem is when income stays the same and access to jobs are scarce. For native Detroiters, increased value represented higher taxes for homeowners, significant hikes in rent for renters, and a job base that is still largely outside the city for a city where only 40 percent of the residents owned cars.”

He added, “economic inclusion initiatives must be intentional and warrant significant investment over the long term. It is a formidable challenge. I tried to do my part to champion inclusive opportunities for people through projects such as MotorCityMatch, Paradise Valley, or bringing in companies like Sakthi Automotive and Flex-n-Gate.”

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