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Region enthusiasts of China connection go for broke with pitch to Nixon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2009 - Today, an unlikely coalition of state and regional civic leaders will find out if an eleventh-hour trek to Jefferson City helped them preserve all of the $1.1 million in the state budget earmarked to woo China to consider setting up a cargo hub at Lambert St. Louis Airport.

Mike Jones, chairman of the Midwest China Hub Commission, said he and other commission members made their pitch Tuesday to John Watson, chief of staff to Gov. Jay Nixon.

The governor, of course, has said he will announce today another round of hefty state budget cuts of more than $100 million to help address the state's continued money problems prompted by the economic downtown.

The China Commission is trying to prevent $700,000 of its allocation from being among the casualties.

First, a bit of history.

For more than a year, a bipartisan coalition of politicians, business and labor have been involved in making a pitch to China officials to consider Lambert for their planned Midwest cargo hub. The state and regional group went all out in May to woo a delegation from China who traveled to St. Louis (and Chicago) to check out the possibilities.

In effect, civic leaders of the Gateway to the West hope to transform it into the Gateway from the Far East.

This year's state budget allocated $12 million -- later trimmed by Nixon to $10 million -- for the China quest. But the bulk of the money is earmarked for construction at Lambert that will be undertaken only if China designates the airport as its hub.

However, $2 million -- later trimmed to $1.1 million -- of the money was to be used for marketing and hiring the experts that the commission believes it needs to continue its pitch to China. Jones said the commission learned recently that Nixon's economic team -- less optimistic about the region's chances -- has recommending cutting that allocation to $300,000.

Watson agreed to meet Tuesday with commission members, who related their fears that $300,000 won't be enough for the region to make a credible pitch, and could kill their effort.

Those meeting with Watson included Jones (chief policy advisor to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, a Democrat), commission executive director Jason Van Eaton (former top aide to Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, a Republican), Missouri Chamber of Commerce chief Dan Mehan and state AFL-CIO president Hugh McVey. Participating by phone was Rich McClure, president of Unigroup Inc. (and former chief of staff to then-Gov. John Ashcroft, a Republican).

(Jones observed wryly that "Ripley's 'Believe It or Not' " might be interested in the political and philosophical diversity of participants, particularly the rare alliance of Mehan and McVey.)

Jones emphasized that the commission is "empathetic and sympathic'' to the state's budget problems, but believes that its effort could produce a long-term financial boost to the region and he state.

But it's also a fact that Nixon had observed in an interview Monday with the Beacon that his cuts will reflect his philosophy that "a lot of little pieces add up to big pieces."

The commission fears that its $700,000 may well be one such "little piece."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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