Effort seeks St. Louis as trade hub with China

Monday, January 26, 2009

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- St. Louis civic leaders have dubbed it "The Big Idea." If it works, St. Louis could become a major trade hub with China.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., joined civic leaders and China's ambassador to the U.S., Zhou Wenzhong (pronounced Joh Wen-Zawng), on Monday to announce formation of the Midwest China Hub Commission. The commission is made up of representatives from St. Louis city, St. Louis County, the state of Missouri and other entities.

The goal is to expand trade between the Midwest and China, and to create jobs and economic development here as a result of the cooperative effort. The plan includes using Lambert Airport in St. Louis and MidAmerica St. Louis Airport at nearby Mascoutah, Ill., as cargo and freight hubs that would benefit the entire Midwest. Daniel Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, noted that St. Louis is within a one-day drive of nine states.

Zhou said the Chinese are well aware of the importance of expanding trade beyond the U.S. coasts.

"Midwest America is very important in trade relations between China and the United States," Zhou said. "We are buying a lot of things from this part of the U.S., particularly agricultural products. A lot of soybeans. A lot of cotton."

St. Louis and Missouri officials first approached the Chinese with the idea of creating a Midwestern trade hub here about a year ago. Delegations from both countries have traded visits.

"This is probably one of the most exciting opportunities I've seen in 45 years working to develop trade opportunities for Missouri," Bond said.

St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association chief Richard C.D. Fleming said about 143 million Americans live in what is broadly defined as the Midwest -- about two-fifths of the population. He said St. Louis "is in a unique position in the center of the United States to serve this role."

It's a role St. Louis has filled for decades, even centuries, dating to the days of fur trading in the late 18th Century. Today, officials noted that both airports have plenty of room for development as air cargo centers, and are willing and eager to be part of the project.

China also is an eager participant, Zhou said, noting that China is the fourth-largest market for Missouri goods. Bond said Missouri exports about $1 billion annually in goods to China.

"The cooperation between China and the Midwest is on solid ground and has great potential," Zhou said.

The economic slump has prompted some to call for protectionism. Bond said that's exactly the wrong way to approach the crisis.

"With the world economy in a slump, now is the time to be expanding markets for Midwest products and opening up new opportunities for Missouri workers," Bond said.

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