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Editorial & Column


No Better Place, No Better Use


May 1, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

There are a million reasons why Puerto Rico’s transshipment port ought to be developed in the soon-to-be-vacated U.S. Navy base at Roosevelt Roads. They are all explained in detail in our front-page story today, but they can be summarized in two: there’s no better place in Puerto Rico for the transshipment port than Roosevelt Roads and there’s no better use for Roosevelt Roads than the transshipment port.

Indeed, there’s no better place in Puerto Rico for the transshipment port than the vast, 8,600 acres of land surrounding the deepwater harbors at Roosevelt Roads that for decades have been home to the largest U.S. Navy base outside the mainland U.S.

When the initial assessment to identify the ideal location for a world-class transshipment port was made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers back in 1999 (CB Aug. 26, 1999), at least 14 of Puerto Rico’s natural harbors were considered. Roosevelt Roads was not among them for the simple reason that at the time there was no way to anticipate the Navy’s exit from the island after being forced to shut down its weapons training facility in Vieques. Guayanilla’s harbor was considered the best alternative then, even though it certainly is not anywhere near as large as the Roosevelt Roads harbors, nor does it include the infrastructure or land area needed for a world-class transshipment port.

Following the 2000 elections, the new administration discarded Guayanilla in favor of Ponce. To his credit, Ponce Mayor Rafael Cordero played his hand very cleverly to ensure that whatever resources the central government were to dedicate for the development of a port would go to his municipality.

Now, let’s be clear. Ponce needs and deserves a better port than it has. The southern part of the island needs an enlarged and updated port and Ponce certainly is the correct location. But to suggest that Ponce could be the location of a true transshipment port is outright deceit. A mere comparison between Ponce’s small harbor and very limited surrounding land for development and those of Roosevelt Roads makes the choice of the latter a no-brainer. Ponce’s harbor is not even one quarter the size of Ensenada Bay at Roosevelt Roads. Furthermore, because of the vast infrastructure already developed there--including piers, airport, buildings and roads, among other facilities--and even the probable availability of federal funds for the conversion of the former military facility to civilian use, development of a true transshipment port at Roosevelt Roads could come at a fraction of the price it would cost to develop it anywhere else in Puerto Rico.

Yet the current administration shouldn’t be blamed for choosing Ponce any more than the last one for choosing Guayanilla. Neither administration had before it the hands-down best option of Roosevelt Roads. But now that the Navy’s imminent departure from Roosevelt Roads has been confirmed, the question is begged, what would be the best use for that prime piece of real estate?

In our view, there would be no better use for those facilities than the transshipment port. In fact, receiving and serving ships--including aircraft carriers, battleships, submarines and hundreds of warships from other countries around the world--has been the Navy base’s main function for years. A vast amount of existing infrastructure is geared towards that purpose. A sizeable number of civilians in the area, now in need of jobs, have already developed compatible skills.

Tourism development, of which we are very strong advocates, can be located anywhere around our island. A transshipment port has only one ideal location: Roosevelt Roads. If the government understands it would be viable to develop a second port of call for cruise ships outside San Juan, then Mayaguez would be a better location which, in addition to the convenient proximity to Aguadilla’s much underutilized airport, would go hand-in-hand with the Tourism Co.’s own strategy to develop tourism on the west coast. Aguadilla’s airport alone has over 1,000 acres that are not being used that would be ideal for hotel and tourism-oriented development.

Finally, developing a transshipment port at Roosevelt Roads would give us all a unique opportunity to rally around a status-neutral economic development initiative. It’s no longer an issue whether Puerto Rico’s long-term future would be more secure if the Navy were to stay. The fact is that it’s leaving. After decades of having our economic development future hinge on tax exemption and the political winds in Congress, Puerto Rico is in dire need of an engine of economic development anchored in a unique asset that only we possess and no one can take away. That is a world-class transshipment port that takes advantage of a unique God-given asset: our privileged geographic position next to the Mona Passage, the only safe passageway for ships to and from any direction around the globe en route to or from the Panama Canal.

The opportunity at hand is of truly historic proportions in terms of economic development and job creation. A true transshipment port in Puerto Rico would do for our island what federal tax exemption did for decades. Except that our God-given asset on which such a development would hinge, the Mona Passage, can’t be taken away by Congress in the future. Success will require both the government and the private sector to stand squarely behind it. After all, the door to opportunity is always labeled "push." But the administration has to move now.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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