States will woo foreign investors at Obama summit

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 30, 2013 


Gary Spanner, chairman of the Tri-Cities Research District, left, and Diahann Howard, the district's executive director, are attending President Obama's first investment summit in Washington D.C.


— With no state tax on personal or corporate income, Washington state touts itself as a good fit for foreign investors looking to spend some money in the United States.

Texas officials say their state is a natural draw because of its skilled workforce and business-friendly regulatory climate.

And Georgia officials say they can offer easy access to the Port of Savannah and grants and loans to companies willing to relocate.

They’re among the 47 states that will make their best pitches on Thursday and Friday when executives from more than 630 foreign companies in 58 countries meet in Washington to kick off President Barack Obama’s first “investment summit.”

For Obama, who’s scheduled to address the sold-out event Thursday afternoon, it’s a chance to play matchmaker and shake loose some foreign cash as a way to create more jobs in the U.S.

In a July speech in Chattanooga, Tenn., Obama said he planned to connect business leaders from around the globe with state and local leaders “who are ready to prove there’s no better place to do business than right here in the United States of America.”

To facilitate the process, the 1,200 participants at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel will have access to a special online “matchmaking tool” that will allow them to schedule one-on-one meetings in private rooms with top investors, economic development leaders and U.S. government officials.

Only three states are not sending representatives: Alaska, Vermont and New Hampshire.

In Booth 174, officials from the Tri-Cities Research District in Richland, Wash., hope to convince investors that they should look to their part of their state, with an abundance of relatively cheap land, sunny weather and advanced college degrees.

“We have more PhDs than just about anywhere per capita,” said Gary Spanner, the district’s chairman and the manager of the economic development office at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Spanner said the district first began pursuing foreign investors five or six years ago, when it became increasingly difficult to get credit from domestic commercial markets.

“Looking for foreign investment made a lot of sense,” he said. “We’ve been pursuing this a long time, before it was politically fashionable.”

So far, with the aid of Chinese investors, the district is planning four projects valued at $110 million, including two hotels, an apartment complex and corporate housing, said Diahann Howard, the district’s executive director.

“Right now, most of our investors are coming out of China,” she said.

Earlier this year, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., criticized a $6.3 billion project that used 43,000 tons of Chinese steel on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, but he said that foreign investment in the U.S. is a different matter. He noted that many of the U.S. railroads were financed by European investors and said the nation “has a long, long tradition of foreign investment, and it’s perfectly appropriate.”

Still, he said, all foreign investments should be scrutinized on a case-by-case basis to make sure that national security is not jeopardized.

“There are always questions that need to be raised about the appropriateness of it,” Garamendi said. “Do you want the Chinese to come in and take over (defense contractor) Lockheed Martin? Probably not a good idea. But generally it’s a good idea. And the history of America is replete with very solid and positive examples.”

The president is sending some of his top team members to give pep talks to the summit attendees, including Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Trade Representative Michael Froman.

In a statement, the White House said Obama will discuss the economy in his speech, making the case that “it’s time for folks to come together and focus on doing everything we can to spur growth” after the government shutdown earlier this month.

Formally called the SelectUSA 2013 Investment Summit, the gathering is Obama’s attempt to strengthen the U.S. as the largest recipient of foreign investment.

While the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Canada and France rank as the top five sources, China is among the fastest growing, with its investment in the U.S. growing at a whopping average annual rate of nearly 71 percent from 2008 to 2012, according to the Department of Commerce.

The Obama administration said that U.S. subsidiaries of foreign-owned firms now account for more than 20 percent of all U.S. exports and that foreign investment already has created 6 million jobs in the U.S.

That includes 157 new jobs in Texas, where India-based Jyoti Industries completed construction of a $34 million manufacturing facility to build transmission towers in the city of Conroe.

And it includes 220 new jobs in Georgia, where the Austria-based industrial firm Voestalpine invested $62 million in a new automotive components plant in Bartow County.

In Washington state, foreign-controlled companies account for 92,300 jobs, or roughly 4 percent of all private-industry jobs, according to the International Trade Administration.

The shift toward relying on more foreign investment has produced a lot of newcomers in U.S. communities who oftentimes are struggling to adjust.

In the Tri-Cities, Spanner said officials are trying to help foreign-born entrepreneurs by introducing them to others from their native countries, who assist them with such tasks as finding housing, getting a driver’s license and navigating a new business culture.

“It’s not just taking their money and saying, ‘Thanks, goodbye,’” Spanner said. “We really want to make this work for all of us.”

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