WASHINGTON — Monsanto, the agricultural technology company, plans to announce on Wednesday a $4.3 million expansion of its research and development labs in Puerto Rico, a boost to the island's economy.
Monsanto executives plan to expand one of the company's two Puerto Rico work sites, constructing a 20,000-square-foot home for new research and development laboratories. Monsanto's research on the island focuses on corn and cotton, and it also grows corn and soybean seeds for the mainland United States.
The expansion will create 45 jobs and replace temporary facilities with permanent ones, said Kimberly O'Brien, a Monsanto spokeswoman.
The announcement sends a positive signal about the U.S. territory's economy, particularly after other recent life science investments, said Jose Perez-Riera, Puerto Rico's commerce secretary.
"If you have one company that decides to do it, it may just be that that company decided to do it," Perez-Riera said during a visit to Washington for a biotech conference. "If you start getting others, it means that the business climate for that type of activity works."
At last year's biotech conference, Pioneer Hi-Bred, an Iowa-based seed company, announced that it was adding a second research and development center in Puerto Rico.
Since Gov. Luis Fortuno took office in 2009, he's implemented several programs aimed at guiding the island from a manufacturing economy to what Perez-Riera calls an "innovation economy." New tax incentives, in particular, are catching the interest of outside companies, Perez-Riera said.
Monsanto's expansion will take place in Juana Diaz, a town of about 50,000 in southern Puerto Rico, and will bring the number of full-time Monsanto employees on the island to nearly 200. Hundreds more employees work on a seasonal basis.
The company also hopes to partner with two local agricultural universities, including hiring some of their graduates, O'Brien said.
Unlike the mainland United States, Puerto Rico has three to four distinct growing seasons, and the U.S. territory operates under the same regulatory structure as the rest of the United States, making it convenient for companies, O'Brien said.
The announcement came about two weeks after President Barack Obama traveled to Puerto Rico in the first visit by a sitting U.S. president in 35 years.
Despite the positive signs Perez-Riera highlighted, the island is still emerging from a recession deeper and longer than the one that hit much of the mainland U.S.
Sixteen percent of Puerto Ricans were unemployed last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. By comparison, of the 50 states, Nevada had the highest unemployment rate last month, at 12.1 percent.
Justin Velez-Hagan, the national executive director of the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, said he welcomed new investment in Puerto Rico as an encouraging sign.
"If any company's willing to invest down there, it means they have some confidence in the government," he said.
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