What now? TEDA China presentation heads to parish council

Vandebilt wins Swampland title
July 3, 2012
Fishermen offered market training
July 3, 2012
Vandebilt wins Swampland title
July 3, 2012
Fishermen offered market training
July 3, 2012

Terrebonne Economic Development Authority CEO Steve Vassallo and a panel of delegates will make their case about a potential sister-city agreement with Weihai, China, before the Terrebonne Parish Council on July 11.

In a detailed presentation, Vassallo said they will report their findings and expectations resulting from the signing of a 5-year economic letter of intent with the city of Weihai, China.

On Thursday, Vassallo held a news conference that was also attended by council members Russell “Red” Hornsby and Beryl Amedee, in which he fielded questions and offered export examples that could enhance the seafood, shipbuilding and industrial safety training industries available in Terrebonne Parish. He also noted that officials from Weihai, who intend to visit the region in August, are interested in bringing manufacturing plants and expanded retail opportunities with Louisiana as a point of entry.

“Weihai is located in Shandong province in China and their gross domestic product is third in China,” Vassallo said. “It is a very affluent area we are talking to. They are a leader in food processing and the food industry there focuses on large enterprises with well-known brands.”

The TEDA CEO said China, regardless of its reputation, is transforming itself into a quality market, improving the level of products it exports and demanding the best of its imports.

Amedee questioned China’s history with durable goods sold in the United States and asked if that nation would be keeping its best products at home while simply dumping cheap inventory on Terrebonne Parish. “They don’t appear interested in increasing the quality of what they manufacture,” she said. “They appear interested in buying [quality products] from somebody else who is already doing it right.”

Vassallo said the Terrebonne delegation was assured by officials with the U.S. Embassy that China has a growing quality emphasis. “The trend is for higher quality, because the growing middle class in China is demanding higher quality, not just from imports, but from what they are producing,” he said. “They also realize if they are going to increase their exports the quality has to be there. They recognize that and are doing something about it.”

Vassallo said a high demand for live seafood in China, which leads the list of export opportunities for Terrebonne Parish, is not the lone calling card taken across the Pacific Ocean.

Another industrial interest originating from Terrebonne Parish that interested Weihai leaders is shipbuilding. “There is a growing emphasis in Weihai for the construction of yachts.” Vassallo said. “Their deputy mayor said their technology in yachts does not come close to what there is in the United States. That is an area of opportunity to look at us in Terrebonne Parish as a joint venture.”

Vassallo said the Chinese are also interested in the safety training offered in Terrebonne Parish. “One thing about Weihai, everywhere you look there is new construction. It is a very vibrant economy we saw over there,” he said.

Delegates to Weihai said companies there expressed interest in building manufacturing plants in Terrebonne Parish. Addressing the question as to if a local workforce is sufficient to build and operate those businesses, Vassallo said if first-rate companies are brought in, those looking for work, even from other parts of the United States, will follow.

“If you bring in a quality company, and I expect that will be what we are looking at, if a company like that establishes in Terrebonne Parish the jobs that they are going to offer would attract people from a wide region,” Vassallo said. “I don’t think we are going to be limited.”

Vassallo said Terrebonne Parish also stands to benefit by being a gateway to the remainder of the Louisiana and other southern states.

Hornsby asked about real estate opportunities with the Chinese. Vassallo answered that locations at the Port of Terrebonne along with commercial and industrial property opportunities drew the interest of industrialists and distributors.

“One of the things that impressed me was how the people we met [in China] are pro American,” Vassallo said. “Because this is a five-year relationship if someone comes up with a project we haven’t identified, it does not mean we are going to miss it. … The only way it will go south is if we can’t handle the opportunities.”

Amedee said she was impressed with Vassallo’s news conference and looks forward to the detailed presentation.

“Before the trip I was apprehensive because I wasn’t sure whether the Chinese were going to just put on a good face and not show a realistic picture of what to expect if we pursue this economic agreement,” Amedee said. “Now I’m a lot less apprehensive. It seems like [the TEDA delegation] was able to do some investigating and go behind the mask if there was a mask. It wasn’t just diplomatic, formal meetings and dinners. They got to walk the streets between all the diplomatic affairs.”

Addressing what has been a divide among parish council members regarding the economic relationship with China, Amedee said that after TEDA’s presentation next Wednesday, she thinks hardcore opponents will hold their positions because they still have unanswered questions. “I’m not sure Steve and the team was able to collect the information that would answer their concerns. I think some people that were just moderately concerned will feel better now.”

“I think it is a step forward for us to deal with foreign governments for an economic base,” state Rep. Gordon Dove said separate from the news conference. “It is a step forward. I hope something good comes out of it.”

Terrebonne Economic Development Authority CEO Steve Vassallo fields questions during a news conference after returning from an economic exploration to Weihai, China. Joining the trip and participating in the initial report is LSU student Katherine Anna Lee. TEDA will present a full report of plans for an international economic relationship before the Terrebonne Parish Council on July 11.