GLOBAL ECONOMY

West Virginia business leaders eye thaw of U.S.-Cuban relations for economic opportunities

Dan Miller has his sights set on a trip to the Caribbean in the near future, but he's made it clear that it's business and not pleasure.

Miller, the senior scientist with Potesta and Associates, an environmental and engineering consulting firm based in Charleston and Morgantown, is anxiously planning a trip to Cuba, the island nation that has been isolated from the United States for more than 60 years.

With the U.S. and Cuban governments establishing a diplomatic relationship again earlier this year, Miller is one of many business officials throughout the country eying any economic opportunity that may exist in Cuba.

For Miller, an environmental scientist turned business developer, the opening of Cuba is too good of an opportunity to pass up, even if the company he represents doesn't have a history of working overseas.

"Potesta doesn't do international business," Miller said. "Yet!"

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With a history of working in Honduras and Ecuador in past jobs, Miller is confident that he can establish new business for Potesta if he is only granted access to the right people in Cuba. Being fluent in Spanish and having visited Cuba on personal trips on the past, Miller said all he needs is the legal authority to visit the country.

"I've got the communication barrier. That won't be a problem," Miller said, adding that you don't want to be hashing out business deals through an interpreter. "I can pretty much run on my own down there."

During his previous trips to Cuba, Miller said he couldn't help but notice the commercial development opportunities that existed. He said many of the hotels and restaurants in Havana and other parts of the country are ripe for redevelopment.

"It was amazing the dilapidated places that are just in prime, prime places," Miller said.

While Miller is one of the few business officials openly pursuing opportunities in Cuba, there are many people in West Virginia watching the country closely.

The Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce had a trip to the island nation planned for October, but Jack Thompson, the chamber's president, said the trip was sidetracked because of scheduling changes and hesitancy from some members.

"I think there is so much immediate change going on that people are unsure about the process and what Cuba would be like," Thompson said.

Miller said there are many U.S. business officials and companies who aren't comfortable with the current legal system in Cuba. There are nuances to their contract laws that make people hesitant to invest, Miller said, but he expects that to change.

"If things keep going the way they are going, it will be a less risky place to invest," Miller said.

Even with the trip canceled, Thompson said he is working with people, including Miller, to find a way around travel restrictions, which are still relatively tight.

Miller is in contact with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin's office in an attempt get permission for a trip to Cuba. While there are 12 separate travel categories allowed under the new diplomatic rules, including family visits, religious activities and humanitarian work, there is no specific category for business, Miller said.

As a result, he is trying to get a trip sanctioned under the approved category of "professional research and professional meetings."

"My angle on it is to put Potesta in a position where we can help companies develop properties that are to a quality that we expect in the United States," Miller said.

Miller is not alone in his interest in Cuba. Thompson has spoken with many engineering companies and architectural firms that are eyeing the possibility of jumping into the Cuban market in the near future as the diplomatic tension between the United States and Cuban people continues to thaw in the coming years.

"It will be a major tourism market," Thompson said. "So they see an opportunity to be in on the ground floor of that."

Ellen Taylor, president of Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce said she will be watching the progress of West Virginia businesses as they attempt to expand into Cuba. "There will be opportunities in commerce both ways," she said

Matt Ballard, president of the Charleston Area Alliance, said the general isolation of Cuba over the past half century provides an opportunity for capitalist expansion now that the country is opening up to the largest economy in the world, the United States.

"We will be watching as the economic relationship continues to change," Ballard said. "If there are opportunities, it would be a great opportunity for the state."

If the travel management industry is any indication, Ballard said there has been a surge in the number of U.S. companies looking to plant the seeds of future business in Cuba. Ballard, who has been a member of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, said specialty trips marketed to Chamber members have taken off in the past couple months.

"There has unquestionably been an increase in promotion," Ballard said.

Steve Roberts, the president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said there has been general conversation about what the opening of Cuba could mean for the entire state.

"I think there is strong interest in opportunities that already exist or may exist in Cuba," Roberts said.

Roberts said the tourism industry is one example of how West Virginia businesses and people might be able to benefit from the growth of the Cuban economy. With West Virginia's experience in tourism management and construction trades, Roberts believes there is opportunity for growth in that sector.

"We know that the high-end tourism business won't be immediate in Cuba, but the strong opportunity exists for us to train people to work in Cuban resorts and to invest in Cuban resorts," he said. "I think this is coming."

And while he didn't want to speak for any of the automotive parts manufacturers in West Virginia, Roberts said he believes export opportunities will exist in that sector too.

"I would think the parts we are making in West Virginia will in fairly short order find their way into Cuba," Roberts said.

Once trade relationships start to open up, Roberts said he expects business with Cuba to grow exponentially, but he cautioned that chamber of commerce representatives tend to be optimists, always seeing opportunity just around the corner.

In the end though, Roberts said it will be the entrepreneurial business owners, not the Chamber of Commerce, who will forge a new generation of business opportunities and relationships.

"I'm pretty optimistic, pretty bullish, on opportunities to trade with Cuba," Roberts said. "It is a long time coming."

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