Fri, May 07, 2004 - Page 10 News List

Small US towns look toward China to remedy job losses

FOREIGN SHORESSmarting after a large amount of job losses two years ago, many people are turning to China to bring back opportunities and development


About 35 years ago, Harold Resweber, at the time the mayor of St. Martinville, went to Fruit of the Loom in Kentucky in search of jobs for his community. He found thousands of them as the textile giant built one of its largest plants just outside of town.

Today, with the company's abandoned plant a reminder of the lost manufacturing jobs across Louisiana and the rest of the country, Mayor Eric Martin is on the same quest, but to a far different location: China.

"Like Toyota and Nissan, there are Chinese companies that want a presence in the United States," Martin said. "Capitalism is exploding in China."

After several trips with other officials to China, Martin hopes to nab a Chinese auto parts manufacturer within the coming months. He also hopes the company, which he would not identify, will be just the first of other China-based companies to take up shop in the former Martin Mills plant.

If all goes well, Martin expects as many as 500 jobs to be created, with thousands more possible in the future.

Martin, like many other St. Martinville residents, blames the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for sweeping away 2,200 jobs at Martin Mills two years ago. But the mayor said he and other officials decided to look at NAFTA in a different way while seeking out recovery.

"Let's turn this NAFTA thing around and see if there are foreign countries who want a presence in the United States,'' he said.

Robert Kapp, president of the Washington-based US-China Business Council, did not know of any proposals for Chinese firms to set up operations elsewhere in the US, but said it was only a matter of time before Chinese investors would be spreading out across the country.

"You'd have to have a paper bag on your head not to realize that China is branching out and will have capital to invest, not only in this country but all around the world," Kapp said.

Fruit of the Loom's closure of Martin Mills, which employed 3,500 at its height in 1997, was one in a series of employment blows the company dealt to the state as it sought to lower labor costs by moving manufacturing jobs overseas. More than 6,000 workers were cut during the 1990s as the company also shut plants in Port Barre and Abbeville and eliminated jobs at its only remaining Louisiana facility at Jeanerette.

Martin said the Chinese, who have grabbed US manufacturing jobs with cheaper labor costs for years, are interested in Louisiana as a cost-effective base for assembling and marketing their products directly in the US, and for shipping them to Central and South America. Louisiana has several major ports through which goods could be shipped to the south.

Martin and other officials plan to visit China for a third time later this year to negotiate. In the meantime, US Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, has pledged support for expanding the foreign trade zone at the Port of Baton Rouge into St. Martin Parish.

In a foreign trade zone, companies can bring in goods free of US tariffs and assemble them into a finished product, which Martin said is what the auto parts company wants to do at Martin Mills.

The Martin Mills plant is now owned by a St. Louis company and, under the present scenario, would be purchased by Chinese investors. The facility is large enough that up to a dozen other manufacturers could also be housed there.

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