Idaho trade mission lines up Chinese investors

A federal program offers foreigners a chance to bring their money to America.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comJune 13, 2010 

BEIJING - Twenty would-be Chinese immigrants committed to investing $10 million and creating 200 jobs in Idaho.

The $10 million is just part of $60 million the Idaho State Regional Center and its Chinese partner Westlink have lined up from as many as 120 investors who want to bring their families to the U.S. and invest in Idaho.

The announcement by Idaho Department of Commerce officials capped a successful week of meetings between Gov. Butch Otter, Chinese officials, investors and Idaho companies.

"It met and exceeded our expectations," said Don Dietrich, director of the Idaho Department of Commerce.

Since Otter touched down in Shanghai a week ago, the Regional Center and its Chinese partners have been conducting a series of seminars across China seeking Chinese willing to invest at least $500,000 in Idaho in exchange for a green card for them and their families.

Under the federal EB-5 immigration program, the Regional Center must be able to create 10 jobs over two years for each investment, which it plans to do by investing in an existing gold mine near Placerville in the Boise Basin near Idaho City.

For a week, 250 immigrant consultants and thousands of their employees have spread out across China extolling the virtues of the investment, including an insurance plan that can protect it.

Otter spoke at several seminars, including one Friday urging Chinese investment in Idaho. It will be weeks before the Regional Center has all of its investors in place - but its weeklong efforts paid off.

"Our company believes that the Idaho State Regional Center is the best, most innovative EB-5 program for Chinese investors," Lu Sun of Maslink said in a press release.

OTTER PITCHES FOR IDAHO BUSINESSES

Otter also met Friday with Chinese Vice Minister of Commerce Yi Xiao Jhun, who said China is careful about approving direct-sales businesses after a series of frauds and even organized-crime involvement.

Otter, who met with Yi on behalf of Idaho Falls-based Melaleuca, which sells health and wellness products via direct sales, said he understands. He said that's why Idaho puts its faith in companies it knows and that meet high standards, like Melaleuca and another company on the trade mission, Sandpoint-based Oxyfresh.

Yi agreed to consider licenses to expand Melaleuca's operation in China then turned to Melaleuca International Vice President Paul Haacke: "Congratulations," he said. "You've got the governor's personal credibility behind you."

Earlier in the day, Otter made a pitch to China wheat officials to invest in silos adjacent to the Port of Lewiston. He said it would provide a certain supply of the high-protein wheat grown in Idaho ideal for Chinese needs. It may take more convincing, but Idaho Wheat Commission member Jerry Brown of Soda Springs said that at least Idaho is talking with a critical trading partner.

"It's (Otter's) clout that gets us in the room with the decision-makers," Brown said.

FIRST LADY PAYS HER OWN WAY

Some Idahoans have expressed doubts about the wisdom of spending state tax dollars for trade missions like this one, which ended Friday. Most of the cost is paid by the 15 companies that went on the mission at about $7,500 per person.

Sponsors Zions Bank and Nunhems Seed also paid for the relatively lavish receptions held to honor customers and conduct business in Shanghai and in Beijing, where on Friday U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor and friend of Otter's, played co-host.

Even first lady Lori Otter paid her own way.

Past missions have cost the state between $35,000 and $50,000, said Damien Bard, Department of Commerce administrator for international business. He expects this one to fall within that range.

Otter's direct involvement isn't the only benefit for the businesses.

Steve Wood, Oxyfresh CFO and global president, was in few meetings with Otter. Instead, he was rushing through Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing to meet with Chinese companies that might be interested in partnering with Oxyfresh to market and sell its dental, pet, nutrition and health care products.

Of 15 meetings in six days, 13 were set up by the Department of Commerce.

"They did great research for us," Wood said.

So how did it pan out?

"Every company we met wanted to do something with us," Wood said.

He expects the sales that will result could create and support a half-dozen new jobs in the next year.

"If we hit a home run we might double or triple that," he said.

FROM INL TO CHINA

Otter pitched Premier Technology's skid-based modular construction technology to Jin Kening, chairman of the China National Chemical Engineering Corp., Friday.

Premier builds nuclear waste transportation casks and other high-tolerance steel equipment and buildings for Department of Energy contractors at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Doug Sayer, Premier's president and CEO, has been working with China National for months before the meeting Friday. Otter's efforts helped him move the partnership forward.

"It takes a lot of creativity and a lot of risk," Otter said, touting Premier's record.

Jin has already partnered with Washington Group on a state-of-the-art GM auto plant in Shanghai, and he said he knows and trusts Idaho's capabilities. His company has technical expertise and access to Chinese government financing that could create a mutually profitable partnership, he told Otter.

Sayer said Friday developing solid relationships with Chinese companies takes time and a long-term vision.

"When we talk about counting jobs, we're talking about 10 or 20 years," said Sayer.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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