MORRISON – Whiteside County’s economic development director is taking the phrase “think globally, act locally” to heart.
Gary Camarano wants to see local businesses play a bigger part on the international stage, and he’s hoping the world's second-largest economy will help him do it.
China, with a population approaching 1.4 billion, has seen an increasing demand for U.S. products and Camarano thinks local industries can meet that demand. With some help from China's new consul general in Chicago, Hong Lei, they just might get the chance.
Hong was the guest of honor at a luncheon Jan. 27 in Chicago's Chinatown in celebration of Chinese New Year. The event, attended by about 50 business and civic leaders, including Camarano, was sponsored by the Central Asian Productivity Research Center.
Camarano had first met Hong a couple of months ago, and took advantage of the opportunity to speak with him at length during the luncheon.
Camarano said they discussed trade and investment opportunities between China and the Whiteside County region, and the talks are just beginning. Camarano sent Hong and his staff a formal invitation Wednesday to visit the region and learn more about its businesses.
"I'm going to take the consul general up on his desire to learn more about our local businesses and their strengths, and how they may be able to take advantage of trade opportunities with local businesses," Camarano said.
Camarano said he would like to take the Chinese delegation on an aerial tour of the region, in addition to setting up meetings with local business and civic leaders.
Historically, higher labor costs have put the U.S. at a trade disadvantage, but that gap is closing with many nations, creating more demand for American products.
Siva Yam, president of the U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce, reinforced that sentiment at the luncheon, Camarano said.
"While China has an edge in lower labor costs, the U.S. has an advantage in consistent quality, innovation, and labor productivity, and there is growing demand for many U.S.-produced goods in China," Yam said.
After decades of U.S. corporations pouring money into China, the investment pendulum is swinging the other way. In 2016, Chinese investment in the U.S. exceeded $45 billion, marking the first time it had surpassed U.S. investment in China.
"Not all investment is going out, and hopefully, that will be good for jobs in the U.S. and in Whiteside County," Camarano said.
Camarano said he believes the region's location, workforce, and transportation assets should make it competitive for new investment dollars.
Another plus is Hong's interest in the type of businesses that are the region's foundation.
"There is a tremendous amount of growth in both countries in small- to mid-sized businesses, and he stressed that he wanted to connect with us in that area," Camarano said. "The big companies have their own dedicated sales forces."
Camarano said several of the region's manufacturers are already well-versed in international trade, citing Wahl Clipper and Astec Mobile Screens.
China is no stranger to Illinois trade, particularly in the agribusiness and heavy machinery sectors. The Chinese buy about 50 percent of the soybeans raised in the Land of Lincoln.
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos had been working on legislation that would make it easier for the region's businesses to take advantage of international market opportunities.
“I introduced the Boosting America’s Exports Act to make it easier for small- and medium-sized businesses to grow, create jobs and export their products to new markets,” Bustos said.
Last spring, Bustos visited Sterling's Boston Leather, highlighting the small manufacturer as the type of company that could benefit greatly from the bill's passage. She said taking advantage of foreign market opportunities will create more jobs at home.
"With small businesses creating two out of every three new jobs, we should make sure they have the tools and resources needed to succeed in our communities," Bustos said.
The Boosting America's Exports Act stalled in the House last year, but Bustos said she will work for its reintroduction in the new Congress.
The legislation is part of Make It In America, a package of 80 bills worked on by House Democrats that focus on creating a stronger economy through a resurgence in manufacturing.
Highlights from the Boosting America's Exports Act:
• Directs the U.S. Commercial Service to design metrics and set goals relating to new-to-exporting firms served by the agency’s programs.
• Increases resources for export assistance centers so they can conduct outreach to non-exporting firms, enhance collaboration with state and local export promotion programs, and hire additional trade specialists and administrative staff as needed.
• Instructs the undersecretary of international trade to conduct an assessment of whether export assistance centers are optimally located to reach small- and medium-sized businesses, and presents a plan to Congress on underperforming locations to close and new locations to open.