YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There’s no official timeline for when the nation’s embargo on Cuba will be fully lifted, but Rep. Tim Ryan, D- 13 Ohio, and State Rep. Sean O’Brien, D-63 Bazetta, are working to hedge the bets of Mahoning Valley businesses when the time comes.
Tomorrow the two officeholders and 15 area businessmen will fly to Havana and meet with diplomats, Cuban businesses and entrepreneurs. They return Sunday.
“The No. 1 word here is ‘opportunity.’ There were times in our community where we were the last ones to figure out what was going on or take advantage of some shift in the economy,” Ryan says. “Now, we’re on the cutting edge of figuring out how we can help our businesses here in Ohio and the Mahoning Valley capture a new market.”
Among those traveling with O’Brien and Ryan are Sam Covelli, owner of Covelli Enterprises; Ron Klingle, CEO of Avalon Holdings Corp.; Ted Bloom, owner of Bloom Industries; and Russ Sewell, CEO of Quality Switch. Other companies joining the trade mission are Edgewood Surgical Hospital, Niles Expanded Metals, Trumbull Industries, Quality Switch, Hudson Construction, La Bara Cigars, B.J. Alan Co. Summer Garden Food Mfg., PI&I Motor Express and Vista Trade Group.
All are paying their own expenses, Ryan and O’Brien said.
As Cuba opens itself to the outside influence of the global economy, Ryan said, the country is in need of the infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities to compete.
“The opportunities are there to build the country out; the roads, the bridges, the infrastructure, the ports, the housing,” he said. “They have so much opportunity for our businesses to go there for work, make money and bring some of that revenue back.”
One example of bringing dollars back to the area Ryan offered was of a hypothetical engineering firm hired to build bridges in Cuba, which leads to bigger and bigger contracts that in turn could lead to the company hiring more employees.
“There may be Valley folks who are doing business in China who can start doing it in Cuba and save on travel expenses or transportation costs,” he continued. “That money can be reinvested into their business. There are a lot of opportunities and I don’t think we know them all. That’s why we’re going.”
In April, two Cuban diplomats, Juan Lamigueiro Leon, deputy chief of the Cuban Interests Section, and Sergio Vazquez del Rio, the section’s first secretary, visited Youngstown State University and toured several area companies, including Bloom Industries.
What they saw, O’Brien said, excited them and pushed the relationship between the Valley and Cuba forward, he said.
“They were excited because they don’t have the injection molds or packaging they need. It gets imported and it comes from China,” he said. “Once this embargo goes away, we’ll be better situated to take advantage of that.”
What also attracted the diplomats, he added, were the similarities between Cuba and Ohio, such as the population – Ohio’s population in the 2010 census was 11,536,504 while Cuba’s population last year was 11,238,317 – and the predominantly agricultural economy.
“There are a lot of similarities that we can work together on, which is key. We’ll be working together and find synergies that other states don’t have,” O’Brien said. “By working together now, we’ll establish that, get the seeds planted and collect the fruit sooner.”
Another future benefit of the upcoming trip could be collaboration between schools in the Valley and Cuba is a “sister school program,” Ryan and O’Brien said in their announcement. Niles City Schools and Trumbull Career and Technical Center are already on board, Ryan said.
“It’s enriching for a young person to have that opportunity. Cuba has an amazing culture and that can change the trajectory of a kids’ life,” he said. “It’d also be enriching for us to have intelligent, bright, articulate adventurous young Cubans in our community as well.”
For Ryan, another large aspect is learning about the government systems in place in Cuba. In the past, the government has been fairly private about its inner workings.
“Shawn and I will spend a good deal of time not only with business folks, but also get a better understanding of the bureaucracy of Cuba,” he said. “We want to go figure out, if our business folks have an opportunity, how we can facilitate that through the visa or application process they have.”
Of course, both Ryan and O’Brien noted, none of this means that Cuban businesses and government officials will choose to work with Mahoning Valley companies. But it gives the area a leg up on other regions who have similar plans.
“I’ve got friends in Pittsburgh who are going down a month from now, so we’re a month ahead of them. That’s a month longer [for us] to develop relationships,” Ryan said. “We have what other regions don’t. We’re going to be in the mix and it’ll be competitive, but we’re there. We’ll fight hard to get the benefits of it.”
Among the events scheduled for the group are a meeting with U.S. diplomats on Wednesday, a presentation on legal topics about foreign investments on Thursday, and a meeting with “private sector entrepreneurs and state owned retail shops” in Havana.
Josh Medore, The Business Journal
October 13, 2015
Copyright 2015 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.