William Plasencia

Saturday, 25 September 2010 20:00

Tough choices

Immigration has always been a front-burner issue in Florida, but the debate got hotter this election season when billionaire gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott said the state needed a tougher, Arizona-style immigration policy that would, among other things, force state law enforcement officials to police undocumented individuals.

A recent national CNN poll indicated the vast majority (70 percent) of Hispanics believe that the Arizona law will lead to increased discrimination against Hispanics. And while the law is unpopular among Hispanics in South Florida, Scott, who beat a Republican establishment candidate to win his party’s primary in August, has developed a niche of supporters among affluent Hispanic business leaders, many of whom benefited from the more liberal immigration policies of the past.

Immigration is not an easy issue to discuss in Florida, and this election year, it’s become nearly impossible to have a passionate debate on the topic. That’s because while many business leaders here publicly back a hard-line stance on border security and undocumented workers, privately, they are much less sanguine because of how dependent the local economy and many of their businesses are on immigrant labor.

Yes, it’s well known that undocumented workers ply our fields, but they also play an important role in the landscaping and construction business of South Florida. So prevalent is the use of cheap undocumented laborers that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials regularly raid job sites throughout the area — efforts that have increased significantly during that last two years, according to the business owners and immigration attorneys with whom I spoke.

Unskilled laborers are the more familiar face of immigration in the nation, but there’s another side that’s all too common: foreign, skilled laborers who overstay tourist or business visas and obtain work, pay taxes and live normal lives here. By some U.S. government estimates, those workers account for 45 percent of the foreign undocumented population in the country.

“The majority of people who come through my office seeking help are middle-class; more than half of which are college-educated, working people who have overstayed their visas,” says James P. Gagel, an immigration attorney based in Coral Gables.

Gagel says that Florida already has tough laws against undocumented workers and that South Florida police routinely enforce those laws, though they are not mandated to do so.

“I have many clients who have been stopped for traffic infractions, and the next thing they know, they’re in a federal detention center,” Gagel says.

In early August, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, in an attempt to shore up his tough-on-crime credentials in his political race against Scott, introduced several immigration enforcement policies that mimicked what Arizona had already put into law. A majority of Florida voters rejected McCollum at the polls.

Now, Scott faces Democrat challenger Alex Sink, a former banker and currently Florida’s chief financial officer. For either to prevail in the November election, they will need to court Hispanic voters and especially tap the wealthy ones who can contribute to their campaigns. At least one businessman — a Scott supporter in the primaries — whom I met at an August Latin American Business Association meeting said he’s open to listening to Sink.

“Personally, I know that Scott would be good for me and my business, but Alex [Sink] has been good for the state. We’ll see.”

William Plasencia is a longtime business journalist and communications and media consultant based in Miami. Find out more about Will on his website: www.willplasencia.com.

Thursday, 26 August 2010 20:00

Silicon Beach

Miami has long wanted to be counted alongside the burgeoning technology centers of New York, Boston and, probably the most notable of all, Silicon Valley. For South Florida, the effort has been a series of lurches, quick sprints and dead stops, spurred on by a business climate that rewards entrepreneurs.

It is that entrepreneurial spirit that allowed the tech community here to continue to grow despite the South Florida economy suffering disproportionately more than other regions around the country. And it’s that same scrappy, bootstrap mentality that perhaps is holding the region back from realizing its ambitions.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Miami’s struggle to forge an identity for itself as a technology leader.

Various attempts have been made to brand the region under the moniker Silicon Beach, in hopes of stealing some of the gleam from the Valley and suffusing it with Miami’s sex appeal. Those efforts have consumed a lot of hours of debate without a lot of traction to show for it.

“This isn’t Silicon Valley, and that’s fine,” says Kevin M. Levy, who leads the technology and entrepreneurial company practice for the law firm Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart PA.

Levy echoes other business and thought leaders here who say that the region’s identity is still being forged and that the focus instead should be on fostering startups and providing resources.

On that front, progress has been made in the form of research institutes such as Scripps Florida, the University of Miami’s Life Science and Technology Park as well as UM’s entrepreneur and innovator resource center, the Launch Pad, and organizations such as Refresh Miami, the South Florida Technology Alliance and Social Media Club South Florida.

Where is the growth? It’s not in manufacturing chips and computers. There is a robust biotech industry in South Florida and homegrown consulting services that are making the region less reliant on imported expertise. Telecommunications, too, has been strong, with the NAP of the Americas and Spain-based telecom giant Telefonica providing enormous bandwidth and infrastructure to the hemisphere and further solidifying the area’s claim as a gateway to the Americas.

One recent evening in July, a few dozen entrepreneurs crowded into a Design District restaurant to hear a panel on patents and intellectual property moderated by Seth Elliott, who, along with Alex de Carvalho, co-founded Miami’s Startup Forum. The two men are in agreement that the diversity of Miami’s tech community — which ranges from bloggers and content creators to programmers, engineers and enterprises large and small — is one of the area’s main strengths. They see the struggle for identity as incidental to a culture change in Miami.

“You see many more people interacting with one another and sharing ideas [and expertise,]” says Elliott, who is a partner at the management consulting firm Apheleon Group.

He says the coming-of-age moment for Miami will be when the region produces its first $100 million technology phenomenon, such as social media darling Foursquare.

De Carvalho isn’t sure a tech phenom is necessary, though he says one of Miami’s main challenges is modifying the current competition-at-all-costs culture to one of cooperation or at least more cooperative cohesion toward shared goals.

That’s slowly happening, both men agree.

Ulises I. Orozco, a principal at Miami-based Ecient Group and promoter of the Silicon Beach brand, says he is proof positive of what Elliott and de Carvalho are espousing. With a background in corporate finance, Orozco decided to form a technology venture four years ago at a time when the Miami tech scene was hard to find.

“What I’m noticing now is that people are becoming more and more connected and meeting others with completely different backgrounds and skill sets, which is sort of refreshing because if you go to San Francisco, you don’t necessarily see that collaboration between like-minded people,” Orozco says.

William Plasencia is a longtime business journalist and communications and media consultant based in Miami. Find out more about Will on his website: www.willplasencia.com.

Monday, 26 July 2010 11:50

At the crossroad

Miami, long a gateway to Latin America, is hoping to parlay that access into a cozier business relationship with the Far East. In particular, business leaders here have China in their sights.
That was the predominant buzz at this June’s annual Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce goals conference, where the prospects were laid out for more trade and investment with China, Taiwan and Japan. But while there are hopeful signs that the local economy is rebounding and infrastructure projects are underway to help Miami compete for Asian business and investment, most here agree that there is a long way to go before a new “silk road” is created.

“The opportunity for Miami will mostly be to play the role of an aggregator for Latin American businesses that want to do business in China,” says Ray Ruga, principal at the marketing firm CVOX Group LLC, which focuses on helping Latin American and Miami-based companies promote their businesses in China. “That role isn’t assured yet because Miami’s relationship with China is still new.”

To put this in perspective: Trade between China and Miami-Dade County is estimated to have been $3.9 billion in 2009, according to research by WorldCity — comparable to the level of trade the region did with the Dominican Republic, a country whose economy is roughly 100 times smaller but is only 900 miles away from Miami.
But China trade will get a boost once dredging is completed that will allow larger ships, carrying roughly five times the cargo of current vessels, to dock at the Port of Miami. That move — and construction of new gates now underway at the Panama Canal — will make it more cost-effective for Chinese businesses to use Miami as a distribution hub for goods and materials.

“China has been here for years, kicking the tires,” says Frank R. Nero, president and CEO of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade’s economic development organization.

But, only recently, there have been concrete moves to invest in the area including the June signing of an agreement to open a logistics center in the city of Opa-locka, which will serve as a “linkage to Chinese manufacturers in Latin America.” Nero added that the center is expected to house 50 companies and create 3,000 jobs, and that an estimated 500 Chinese nationals will relocate to Miami because of the facility.

The influx of Chinese immigrants into the Miami area is of particular interest to those in the real estate industry, which was hard hit during the recession.

“They’re here and they’re buying, but nobody knows how to connect with them,” said a frustrated Teresa King Kinney, CEO of the Realtor Association of Greater Miami and the Beaches, during one of the chamber’s planning sessions.

According to Kinney and others at the session, language barriers and an overall unfamiliarity with the landscape of Chinese business interests are making it difficult for Miami business to leverage the growing interest that China and other Asian countries have in investing and doing business here.

“What Miami lacks is leadership, particularly among elected officials,” says CVOX’s Ruga, adding that local governments need to step up or risk losing the opportunity to other cities competing for Chinese investment. “Latin America feels so comfortable doing business with South Florida that this could be a one-stop shop for Chinese businesses.”


William Plasencia is a longtime business journalist and president of WPA Works, a communications and media consulting company based in Miami. Reach him at www.wpaworks.com.