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U.S. Rep. Wild, Mayor Tuerk leading Lehigh Valley delegation to Puerto Rico

Dancers in red and blue dresses with big, flowing skirts dance in front of a crowd
Ryan Gaylor
More than 35,000 people of Puerto Rican heritage live in Allentown, influencing the local culture with events such as the Puerto Rican Day Festival. A local delegation, including Mayor Matt Tuerk, Councilwoman Cynthia Mota and U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-Lehigh Valley, will visit the island this week to promote stronger ties.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — U.S. Rep. Susan Wild and Mayor Matt Tuerk will lead a delegation of Lehigh Valley officials to Puerto Rico, where they'll look to strengthen cultural and economic ties between the region and the island.

The travelers said Wednesday that along with getting to know the island communities that have influenced the Lehigh Valley, they want to look for common ground on where they can help each other in both the public and private sectors. High on that list is a direct flight between the two regions.

  • A delegation of Lehigh Valley officials is leaving for Puerto Rico this week
  • U.S. Rep. Susan Wild and Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk, are among a delegation looking to build stronger cultural and economic ties with the island territory
  • A high priority will be building support for a direct flight between Lehigh Valley International Airport and San Juan

"There's a half a million Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania. There's an opportunity for businesses from there to come here and businesses here to make partnerships with businesses there," said Victor Martinez, owner of La Mega 101.7 FM in Allentown and one of the organizers for the trip.

The trip begins Thursday and concludes Monday. It includes Wild, Tuerk, Martinez, Allentown Councilwoman Cynthia Mota and AJ Suero, chair of the Greater Lehigh Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Growing influence

Their itinerary includes stops in San Juan, Ponce and Patillas and visits with Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and members of his administration, local mayors and Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon, the territory's non-voting representative in Congress.

Puerto Ricans make up the largest segment of the Lehigh Valley's fast-growing Hispanic population. About 77,000 people of Puerto Rican heritage live in Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District, Wild said; the population jumped after displaced islanders came to the region following Hurricane Maria in 2017. More than 35,000 people of Puerto Rican heritage live in Allentown, Tuerk said.

Tuerk, who made a similar trip to the Dominican Republic last year, said it's important to him to experience the culture of the island communities that influence his city.

He's been invited to speak to a conference of mayors, where he plans to talk about Allentown and its recent history, achievements and goals. In addition, he hopes to build relationships with Puerto Rico businesses, potentially drawing future investments in the Queen City. At this early stage, he said, there are no deals in the works, just potential to discover.

"A lot of work starts with basic relationship-building. You exchange an expression of interests, and then you can go from there," said Tuerk, who is not using tax dollars to pay for his trip.

"There's a half a million Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania. There's an opportunity for businesses from there to come here and businesses here to make partnerships with businesses there."
Victor Martinez, owner of La Mega Radio

Wild agreed, saying the trip is more exploratory.

She's also seen that although Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they sometimes don't receive the same level of government support that Americans stateside see. She hopes to use the meeting with Gonzalez-Colon to find ways to improve constituent services and promote islanders' rights.

"I think it's something we really need to deal with head-on. They're often treated as second-class citizens in travel," Wild said, saying they're often requested to present unnecessary visas.

Wild's office is picking up her expenses on the trip since it is promoting economic activity in the district and constituent services, her staff said.

Direct flight

One highly desired business tie would be a direct flight between San Juan and Lehigh Valley International Airport. The Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, which oversees LVIA, has openly lobbied airliners for such a connection for years.

A route to Puerto Rico would provide Lehigh Valley tourists with a Caribbean getaway while allowing thousands of people here and on the island with a convenient way to see family and friends.

Martinez started a change.org petition for a connection between Allentown and Puerto Rico and collected over 700 signatures in a day. He said he intends to present the petition to Pierluisi in hopes of further drumming up support.

He said the growing Latino population in the Lehigh Valley reminds him of central Florida, where he grew up. Puerto Ricans there became small business leaders, which helped contribute to a strong local economy around Orlando.

"I saw that and realized it could happen here," he said. "That's another opportunity with exchanging businesses and tourism."