Officials locally and at the state level are hoping a November agreement with a port district in central China will pave the way for bringing Chinese business and dollars to Madison County.
Illinois' total trade with China was $26.9 billion in 2011, according to figures from the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Illinois exported $3.9 billion in goods and imported $23 billion in Chinese goods.
The Tri-City Regional Port District's America Central Port property in Granite City is partnering with the Wuhan New Port in central China.
Port District Executive Director Dennis Wilmsmeyer and port district staff traveled to China in October, meeting with Chinese officals at Wuhan and in Shanghai. The port district's Board of Commissioners approved the cooperative agreement between the ports at its November meeting.
Wilmsmeyer and Frank Miles, the port's business development manager, said the agreement not only gives the port district a toehold in China, it also gives the Chinese an entrance into Madison County and the Midwest, as well as guidance for developing more environmentally sustainable practices at the Wuhan facility.
"We are hoping to position ourselves through this agreement and future discussions as a link between their port and our port and bringing commodities to the heart of our country, and at the same time looking at those exports from the Midwest we can get on barges and in containers and send to those [Chinese] markets," Miles said.
Currently, the port district does not handle container traffic. However, Wilmsmeyer explained, the construction of the port's South Harbor, set for completion in 2014, will allow the port district to take such traffic, more often used in international trade.
The America's Central Port — as the port district property is called — also plans to start an "international incubator" similar to the River's Edge Enterprise Center the port operates for local business start-ups.
"They have a perception that the U.S. isn't interested in investment from China," Wilmsmeyer said. "But then there's also the local perception that when they come, we hand them a pile of papers and say 'Fill out this permit and such.' It really deters them from wanting to set foot in this country and set up a new business and that's the thing we're trying to cut through for them, so they can come and set up a new business locally."
The port district's ability to use roads, rails, river and other modes of transport for goods makes it attractive to local and foreign developers, said Ellen Krohne, executive director of the Southwestern Illinois Leadership Council. The Edwardsville-based council is a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging growth and development in Madison and St. Clair counties.
The new agreement with Wuhan, she said, is also a boon to Madison County and the region because it opens doors.
"It gives the Chinese an opportunity to invest in Madison County," Krohne said, including opening businesses and hiring workers. The county's workforce, educational system and geographic location also make it competitive in competing for Chinese trade. "Without this agreement in place, they wouldn't have the opportunity to invest in us. It's one more tool in our tool kit."
Miles and Wilmsmeyer said the agreement came about in large part because of the efforts by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity's Trade Office in Shanghai. The department's acting director, Adam Pollet said the trade offices are a resource more Illinois businesses can use to expand overseas connections.
"We're seeing much greater growth in Asia, China and Japan, in particular," Pollet said. "You have the Shanghai office advocating for these ports, the Tri-City Port, the Mid-America Airport, but also for companies."
"What's great about the deal between Wuhan New Port and the America's Central Port is that it's playing to each other's strengths," he said, calling the Granite City port "a very valuable connection for American exports and breaking into China."
"I would hope we see a growth in these kind of relationships," Pollet said.
Contact reporter Amelia Flood at 618-344-0264 ext. 133