Second Chinese Delegation Pays Columbus County a Visit

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Columbus County officials and business owners opened the door to what they hope will lead to future economic development this week in hosting a delegation of government and business leaders from Zhaoyuan, China.

On a busy tour of the county Tuesday, Chinese officials were welcomed at Black’s Tire, where they toured a new training center that that will serve as the training location for 500 employees of the company across three states and thousands of independent business owners who are customers of Black’s Tire Distributors.

Ricky Benton Sr., owner of Black’s Tire, took the group on his boat later that day after discussing trade opportunities. The company, headquartered locally, could benefit from direct trade agreements that reduce the number of middlemen in the tire distribution process.

The group, led by Zhaoyuan Vice Mayor Tan Keliang, also were wowed at the high tech capabilities of the MaXPro Window Films operation located in the Southeast Regional Industrial Park here.

MaXPro president Joe Cobb was asked on the spot if he would consider a plant or distribution center in China where a high demand for advanced window films exists.

Cobb explained the firm is focused on its U.S. market at present but “pretty soon will be looking” to expand its markets.

“If we could get a distribution center in China or do anything to help our local industries that would be great,” Columbus County Economic Developer Gary Lanier said.

“A lot of times you can accomplish these things through partnerships.

“Will it happen tomorrow? Probably not, but that is something that we would like to investigate,” Lanier said.

Lanier in recent weeks has said economic development takes patience and relationship building with time.

He said it could be years before the county sees the economic fruit of talks today.

A tour of science labs at Southeastern Community College afforded the delegation an opportunity to get up close with Venus fly traps and mushrooms that were micropropagated in classes there.

A tour of West Frasier lumber mill in Riegelwood and the state port in Wilmington followed a luncheon at a private pier in Lake Waccamaw.

Lanier explained that the visit is yet another step in forging a sister city relationship with the Chinese province. It is a venture that began two years ago.

County officials say they see building relationships with the sister city could lead to a mutually beneficial economic boost for both.

The opportunity for Columbus County industries to export to China is one that Lanier sees as a slow but beneficial process.

Tan, via an interpreter, said the group was impressed with the county and its environment and looked forward to improving communication between the entities in an effort to improve economic development for both.

“We have the best wishes for Columbus County being a prosperous society. Long live our friendship and the opportunity to improve the economic development of the two,” Tan said.

Lanier said economic development was “all about relationships and how you treat people.”

He added that China is an expansive market and has a strong economy – only second in manufacturing to the U.S.

Lanier added that he appreciated the county commissioners being open to the idea of building a sister city relationship.

“I think it is great that they have come back and I hope we can get something out of it,” County Commissioner Chairman Edwin Russ said.

“At least the dialogue has started. I hope we get some business and create jobs,” Vice Chairman Trent Burroughs said of the sister city relationship. “I think more economic activity is good for everybody.”

Last year three commissioners paid their own way on a trip to China. “there was not a penny spent of county money. To say there is that kind of commitment – I don’t know of any other economic developer in the state who can say that. When it comes to economic development our county commissioners clearly understand what’s going on.”

In July of 2012 the county hosted a delegation of 11 from Zhaoyuan. This delegation included many new faces and included six.

“This has been a pretty neat experience,” Lanier said of the sister city relationship. Columbus County is forging with the Zhaoyuan officials.

“With economic development you plant seeds and hope they will grow,” Lanier said. You never know but if you take the right steps you hope it leads to a good economy,” Lanier said.

Bao Long Komas Chateau Winery and bottling, a venture funded in part by Chinese investors, was expected to open in the county last year but has been delayed. Investors in that venture put county officials in contact with Zhaoyuan officials and invited Lanier to a winery opening in China more than two years ago.

Lanier said the wine venture will lead to opportunities for vineyards here, and has been beneficial to a Cerro Gordo blueberry winemaker and a Duplin winery that are already selling to the Chinese winery.

“It’s not gone away but it’s a slow process,” Lanier said. “The winery is still looking at a facility in Tabor City. They have not given up.”

Zhaoyuan is about the landsize of Columbus County with a population of 580,000. It includes 12 towns and 724 villages. It is located in the northwest Jiodong Peninsula and features hills and low mountains and has a significant gold, tire, electronics, machinery and food processing industry.

In 2011 the region’s gross domestic product exceeded $52 billion. The minimum hourly wage is 11.5 RMB, equivalent to less than $2.

Imports and exports combined account for $1.9 billion in U.S. dollars – about a third of that was imports to the region.

 

By Nicole Cartrette, Staff Writer, The News Reporter.  (Note:  Photos have been omitted).