Maine delegates: China trip promising
AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — Maine seafood, educational programs, and tourism are among the treasures the state has to offer to boost trade with China, delegates on Gov. Paul LePage's recent trade mission said Tuesday.
The 13-member delegation visited Hong Kong and Shanghai, China, from Sept. 8 through Sunday.
Janine Bisaillon-Cary, president of the Maine International Trade Center, said at a news conference that the aim was to initially secure $3 million to $5 million in new business deals, plus millions of dollars more over time. She said it would be a few weeks before the total from the trip would be available.
But signs from the mission were promising. And George Gervais, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said Maine officials are considering establishing a physical presence in China, possibly at a site shared with other U.S. states.
China is Maine's third-largest foreign market with more than $275 million of Maine products exported to that country in 2011. As in the past, the latest trade mission was almost entirely paid for with private funds.
In 1999, Gov. Angus King led a trade mission to Taiwan and Hong Kong. In 2007, Gov. John Baldacci led a trip to South Korea and Japan.
Delegates said Tuesday the latest trip was demanding, involving 22 meetings over the week. Gervais said the big take-away for him was the importance of building relationships.
"The message was consistent," he said. "Relationship building in China is extremely important to make that first step."
Bisaillon-Cary said having the governor along opened a number of doors to influential people who might not have been available otherwise.
"The governor's role is paramount, in terms of companies being taken seriously. We're a state of small- and medium-sized companies. And many of them, if they're going over there knocking on doors, they don't necessarily get entree with some of the larger players," she said.
On the trip, LePage beamed as he was photographed in a large supermarket holding up a package of Cozy Harbor Seafood Inc.'s Maine lobster and Wyman's wild Maine blueberries. Those products are prime examples of the state's trade potential with China, where people have more money and are interested in quality foods, said Bisaillon-Cary.
Because Maine is a small state and can't compete with large industries in larger states, Maine is focused on developing niche markets, she said.
Aside from food products, delegates saw promise in tourism, educational programs, aerospace and allied high-tech manufacturing. They said they took numerous questions in Shanghai about Brunswick Landing, the redeveloped civilian site at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
Gervais said the Chinese expressed a strong interest for greater student and teacher exchanges between the two countries. Shanghai education officials were particularly interested in learning about innovation and creativity among Maine students.
About 1,000 Chinese students are enrolled in Maine schools, and the trade mission bolstered hope of boosting that number in Maine academies and colleges. In addition, Bisaillon-Cary said, Chinese parents who bring their children to Maine schools sometimes inquire about business opportunities in the state, prompting arrangements to visit businesses, ports and other sites.
"So we started seeing, just kind of organically, some of the linkages that were happening between education and investment," she said.
John Butera, the governor's senior economic adviser, agreed.
"There is certainly not a shortage of investment opportunities in China, people with money looking to invest," he said. "We feel as though, with our universities and our private academies, we're able to use that as an entree for those folks to look at Maine as not only as a place to educate their children, but to invest those dollars and provide a good return on that investment."