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East meets Midwest -- again -- as Missouri leaders tout trade with China

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 4, 2009 - As Missouri Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder made his pitch Sunday for a trade deal that could transform the region's future, he drew on St. Louis' past as the Gateway to the West.

"St. Louis is where the wagon trains went west," Kinder said. "It's the logistical hub of the United States of America and North America."

Now, he continued, "We all want China to make St. Louis your Midwest home."

Half of his audience gathered Sunday night in a ballroom at the plush Four Seasons Hotel was from China, and in town for a three-day whirlwind of meals, presentations and tours that ends today.

They were Chinese businessmen and entrepreneurs from a variety of fields, led by Madam Zhang Yingxin, deputy director of the Chinese Investment Promotion Agency.

The other half of the dinner crowd was made up of state and regional officials and business leaders, Republican and Democrat, who all share two local aims.

The first: To persuade the world's fastest-growing economic power to create a Midwest cargo hub at Lambert Field.

The second: To set up commercial ties between China and the Midwest, beginning with St. Louis.

In effect, the region's pitch is to transform St. Louis into a Gateway to the Far East.

And optimism, at least from this end, is running high.

"I don't believe we have competition for what we're doing," said Mike Jones, a top aide to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and chairman of the Midwest China Hub Commission.

"We've got a lot of momentum," said Dan Mehan, chief executive of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "This could be the most transformative thing I've been involved in, in 14 years with the chamber."

Through an interpreter, Zhang was complimentary Sunday night -- but made no commitments. She noted that the talks, coupled with a series of back-and-forth trips, had begun only a little over a year ago.

However, she indicated that Missouri's state and regional officials were saying the right things.

"At least here, I don't hear any protectionist voices," Zhang said. In her speech at Sunday night's dinner, she had expressed concern that some U.S. officials in Washington were proposing more trade barriers, which she called "a lose-lose situation."

In the interview, she added that she was impressed by "the sincerity that comes from the state of Missouri."

That message is being delivered repeatedly. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, headlined the Sunday luncheon. State House Speaker Ron Richard, a Republican, was to address the Chinese group this morning over breakfast.

Also offering words of support at various events, either in person or via aides: U.S. Sens. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay and Russ Carnahan, both D-St. Louis; Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat; St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, a Republican; Dooley, a Democrat, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, also a Democrat.

All emphasize a common view: that a deal with China could create jobs for a region that desperately needs them, and add air traffic for a partially empty Lambert Field that, as Kinder delicately put it, is currently "the least congested airport in the United States."

Now, all cargo to and from China is sent out of Chicago's jam-packed O'Hare airport.

For the Chinese, Sunday's tour blitz included stops at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Washington University, Express Scripts Inc.'s headquarters and the Gateway Arch.

(Madam Zhang said she was particularly impressed with Washington University and the Arch.)

Today was to be packed with an array of corporate or business presentations at the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton, where the Chinese entourage is staying.

The presentations are targeted to specialized groups of Chinese businesspeople, who Jones said represent four areas:

  • manufacturing;
  • high-tech;
  • plant and life sciences;
  • real estate and construction.

Later this afternoon, the group was to board a bus to Chicago for their 13-hour flight back home to China. They were traveling by bus because St. Louis was added late to a week-long itinerary that also included two day stops each in Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Even the meals for the St. Louis leg offered a Midwest flair, and with trade in mind. Barbecue was served at Sunday night's dinner, while today's lunch was to feature U.S. beef, which Jones noted is currently banned in China.

"We're trying to change that," he said.

The regional pitch to the Chinese has been dubbed by Jones and others as "the Big Idea."

And Jones, a veteran of political rivalries, said he was thrilled to see that state and local officials, from both parties, are "showing great maturity and judgment" by setting aside their political differences to promote the Big Idea.

Such attributes haven't gone unnoticed by Madam Zhang. While emphasizing that nothing is set, she recalled an old Chinese saying: "A good start is half done."

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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