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Puerto Rico Businesses Follow the Flock to Florida

Puerto Rico business coming to Florida? Empresas Fonalledas, owners of San Juan’s giant Plaza Las Américas retail mall, is exploring opportunities in Osceola County. /Plaza Las Américas website

Puerto Rico businesses continue to follow their flock of customers to Florida as island economic conditions squeeze Puerto Ricans.

Ana G. Mendez and Polytechnic universities established themselves in Orlando several years ago. Most recently, wholesale food distributor Titan, home decor retailer Casa Febus and El Mesón restaurant have opened for business in Central Florida.

A new name may be added to these businesses: Empresas Fonalledas, the retail developers of Plaza Las Américas, the retail mall in San Juan that is the largest in the Caribbean and the 15th largest by square footage in all of the United States, with over 2 million square feet of retail space. The mall houses well-known American retailers such as JC Penney (the largest one in the world, by the way, at four stories), Macy’s, Michael Kors, Brooks Brothers and Carolina Herrera, to name a few. The mall is so well known it’s simply known as “Plaza.”

Top-level officials of the family-owned business – including President Jaime Fonalledas – paid a visit to Kissimmee, according to Mayor José Alvarez who later wrote on Facebook:

“I had a very productive meeting today at City Hall. We hosted Mr. Jaime Fonalledas, Luis Fonalledas and Cesar Segarra.
“Mr. Jaime Fonalledas, is the President of Empresas Fonalledas, Inc.
Empresas Fonalledas Inc., is the management company of the group of family held companies which own Plaza Las Américas, the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean and one of the top retail and entertainment venues in the United States. Empresas Fonalledas Inc., also has holdings in dairy cattle operations, milk processing plants, non-dairy food industries, plastics manufacturing, real estate ventures, and retail. Generating more than 10,000 jobs in total, Empresas Fonalledas companies include Plaza del Caribe, Vaqueria Tres Monjitas, Ganaderia Tres Monjitas and franchises in the Puerto Rico market of Starbucks and Soft & Creamy.”

It’s still unclear what Empresas Fonalledas may launch in Kissimmee, but nabbing the Fonalledas would be like hooking a great white whale. The Fonalledas are among the wealthiest families in Puerto Rico and big donors to the Republican Party. In fact, Zoraida Fonalledas, Jaime’s spouse, has been a speaker or presenter  at GOP conventions. (She was once booed.)

Empress Fonalledas, ranked the island’s No. 1 service sector company by Caribbean Business, spent nearly $1.7 million on lobbying during legislation for the unpopular PROMESA bill, which Congress approved to manage Puerto Rico’s then $72 billion debt crisis, according to a Noticel article that quoted

PROMESA’s austerity measures coupled with an ongoing 10-year old economic recession is profoundly changing Puerto Rico. Today there are more Puerto Ricans residing stateside – over 5 million, including Puerto Ricans born in the states – than on the island, with 3.4 million people.

Kissimmee and Osceola County now are home to the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in Florida. And it makes business sense to follow the flock to Florida as the island, sadly, empties of young, working-age families with consumer dollars to spend.

The pull of brand names and fond memories is strong. Puerto Ricans are excited to seek out the brands they recognize. On a recent visit to Orlando my Jacksonville-based mom couldn’t wait to eat at El Mesón, known for its fat sandwiches on pan criollo. 

However, the retail environment in Florida and the states is more challenging, forcing the closure of  anchor stores as well as malls. Fashion Square and Oviedo are two area malls that have been impacted.

Still, what Empresas Fonalledas decides opts to do in Osceola County aimed at the Puerto Rican community will be well worth watching.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Kissimmee Mayor’s Race Gets Weirder and Weirder

The two candidates angling to be Kissimmee’s first Hispanic mayor are engaged in a mano a mano that started years ago and is getting weirder and weirder the closer we draw to the August 30 primaries.

Art Otero and José Alvarez, both Kissimmee city commissioners known for verbal disputes in and out of commission meetings, are on the August 30 ballot. The winner takes the mayor’s seat.

But Otero, known most recently for a domestic altercation in which he allegedly tried to influence the Kissimmee police investigation, is trying to disqualiimagefy Alvarez from the race – and seize the prize – in a suit rejected last week by the Ninth Circuit Court in Osceola. Otero said he will appeal, throwing the election into a dispute that potentially may be decided by the court.

Otero alleges that Alvarez should have resigned his commission seat to run for office, as Otero did, to avoid running from a “safe haven,” which is illegal in Florida. But Alvarez’s term ends in November, while Otero still had a few years left to his term. The judged ruled in Alvarez’s favor. image

Partisan Hijinks?

The hijinks do not end there. Although the mayor’s race is non partisan, Otero is a Democrat represented by two Latino lawyers well known in Oceola Republican circles: principal attorney Carlos Meléndez and former Osceola County Commissioner John Quiñones, who lost his 2014 re-election bid to Democrat Viviana Janer.

Many prominent Orlando-area Democrats are supporting Alvarez, including Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, congressional candidate Val Demings, State Rep. Víctor Torres (D-48) and Janer.

jose alvarez endorsements
The “Most Wanted” poster circulating on Facebook.

An ad paid for by Alvarez with photos of his endorsees is circulating on Facebook, as if it were a “Most Wanted” poster because they had the audacity not to support Otero.

Here’s the crux of the matter: Otero is Puerto Rican and previously urged voters to “vote for the Puerto Rican.” Alvarez, meanwhile, has committed the high crime of being Cuban-American.

Many Puerto Ricans yearn for the first Hispanic mayor of a largely Puerto Rican city to be Puerto Rican. No matter who it is, no matter the temperament.

“Dyer has aspirations for the governorship,” wrote local activist Violeta Burgos on Facebook. “Is he counting on our vote when he visits Kissimmee to endorse a Cuban for mayor and it’s not even his city”?

Political Salsa

At last week’s Political Salsa hob nob, attended by 400 people and held at the Acacia Network in Orlando, Otero took umbrage at losing 70 percent – 30 percent to Alvarez in an unscientific poll.

A Facebook war broke out, forcing Political Salsa organizer and attorney Anthony Suarez to weigh in.

“Any implication that the results aren’t accurate is defamatory…,” wrote Suarez in perfect legalese on Facebook.

Otero, possibly sniffing an electoral defeat at hand, is lashing out any way he can because hob nob polls aren’t meant to be taken seriously. They are hyper partisan fun,  “accurate” only insofar as they represent voter sentiment at the event.

Most folks who attend hob nobs are political insiders themselves, and apparently they are not supporting Otero.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor