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July 24, 2011

Ties with China

Indiana communities seek business with China

INDIANAPOLIS — A group of mayors from small cities and towns around the state met Monday with scores of Chinese investors and business leaders looking to do business in Indiana.

Hoping to woo the Chinese to locate new ventures in the Hoosier heartland, the mayors touted their good schools, dependable workforces, and wide-open spaces as reasons to ship jobs and dollars from China to Indiana.

The setting for what was dubbed “business matchmaking‚” was a trade symposium hosted by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and featuring what state officials said was the largest Chinese delegation in state history.

Daniels inked a series of business agreements with the leader of China’s most prosperous province, Zhejiang Party Secretary Zhao Hongzhu, who said Indiana’s status as “the heartland of America‚” makes it “the hottest land for business and investment.”

Logansport Mayor Michael Fincher said Indiana communities like his can cash in on the heat, but only if they’re willing to let go of fear of foreigners in their midst.

“If rural Indiana is going to exist in the future, we have to put our backward thinking behind us,” said Fincher, a Democrat whose made two trips to Japan and one to China with Indiana’s Republican governor. “Let’s keep Indiana as the crossroads of America rather than back woods of America.”

That sentiment was echoed by Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who’s trying to capture new jobs to replace thousands of manufacturing jobs lost in the last decade when U.S. companies scaled back or shipped jobs overseas. Two summers ago, his city’s unemployment rate hit 20 percent.

Goodnight, also a Democrat, traveled with Daniels to China’s Zhejiang province last fall to meet with government officials and Zhejiang’s deep-pocketed investors who’d expressed interest in investing in Indiana.

One of the things Goodnight learned on the trip, he said: “Mayors get things done in China.”

Richard Fledderman, the Democratic mayor of Batesville, was hoping to get some things done for his community of 6,520 people by attending Monday’s matchmaking session.

Like other mayors who attended, Fledderman spoke through a translator to tell Chinese investors about Batesville’s experience with manufacturing caskets and customized metal parts for the automotive industry. “Our folks can do shift work,” Fledderman said. “That’s a positive for us.”

Daniels has intentionally invited small city and town mayors on his trade trips, citing past foreign investment in rural Indiana, including Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Princeton and Honda Manufacturing of Indiana in Greensburg.

On Monday, he praised those mayors for the value they put on investments, big and small. “They know that even one new investment makes a big difference in their cities and towns,” Daniels said.

Daniels said the trade symposium, held at the J.W. Marriott near the Statehouse, was a result of the relationships built during last November’s trade mission to Zhejiang, which has a sister-state relationship with Indiana.

Zhejiang is a coastal province with a robust economy and thousands of privately owned companies. Much of its wealth comes from manufacturing and agriculture. “I think the potential here is very, very huge‚” Daniels said Monday of the possibility of jobs-producing Chinese investment in Indiana.

Daniels and Hongzhu signed a memorandum of understanding promising to develop additional business, research, and cultural links between Indiana and Zhejiang. Speaking to several hundred Chinese and Indiana business and government who attended the symposium, Daniels said a marker of Indiana’s future success will be its ability to become a strong trade partner. “There is nowhere with whom we are more intent on building greater ties than with the great nation of China,” Daniels said. “In today’s economy, a good test of a great state is whether it can participate in trade and in the two-way exchange with China.”

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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