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Huntsman aims to bring Utah, Mexico a bit closer

Published July 11, 2005 1:00 am

It's the economy: Utah's governor hopes to make some connections to boost local business climate
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Utah's southernmost edge is about a six-hour drive from the U.S.-Mexico border, but no Mexican president has visited the Beehive State for as long as anyone can remember.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. wants to work on changing that with his first economic development trip outside the United States since taking office.

Huntsman is scheduled to leave today for a short visit to Mexico City to meet with the country's top officials and business leaders to foster "a meaningful relationship."

He says his main priorities are to get a commitment from Mexican President Vicente Fox to visit Utah and to connect with two or three industries that might be compatible with state businesses. He hopes to make ties with universities and biotechnology and infotechnology companies in the world's largest city. And he wants to get key Mexican players to understand Utah's interest in tourism, business partnerships and academic exchanges.

"I want to tell them more about what's happening in this part of the U.S.," he said in a phone interview late last week. "It would solidify a meaningful relationship as well."

But on its face, his itinerary appears thin. His small contingent, which includes one private business executive, had three confirmed meetings as of Friday night. That contrasts with economic-development trips by former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who took along dozens of company leaders hoping to open or expand business with Mexico.

Huntsman, who describes his two days in Mexico as "busy," insists the agenda will round out. Several meetings have been proposed that have yet to be confirmed.

Guadalupe Escalante, Utah's trade representative in Mexico City who's helping to organize the trip, said it is not uncommon to get last-minute confirmations on meetings.

"It's not delayed for any reasons, this is customary," she said in a telephone interview from Mexico City.

Huntsman said he decided to go to Mexico because it is nearby and could be a good partner when it comes to economic development, education and cultural events. He said he recognizes the Mexican community in Utah is growing rapidly, and it's only natural he makes ties in Mexico and learns more about it.

"As governor, you're the governor of all the people," he said. "I want to make sure we are aware of the questions on the minds of the Mexican community."

There are more than 200,000 Mexicans living in Utah, says Salvador Jiménez Muñoz, Consul of Mexico for Utah.

Huntsman also plans to discuss immigration, but it's not clear with whom or at what meeting, said a governor's spokeswoman.

While economic development is the primary focus, Huntsman wants to make it clear that the trip is not a trade mission. Instead, he calls it a "policy-development mission."

Trade missions are usually when a group of government, education and business leaders travel to a country to make contacts and deals. In early 2003, then-Gov. Leavitt and a 30-member group visited Mexico on such a trade mission. In late 1994, Leavitt and 50 folks went to Mexico City to promote trade.

Huntsman is taking a handful of people - Chris Roybal, senior adviser for economic development; Michael Lee, general counsel; a couple of security guards; and Joe Reyna, a Utah resident paying for his own trip.

"The doors need to be open and relationships solidified before we start matchmaking," Huntsman said.

Huntsman said he hopes state business leaders are able to organize a trade mission later to Mexico with the contacts he makes while he's there. He also plans to visit China, and maybe India, early next year.

At least one business owner says a politician shouldn't be sent to make business connections, but others say they support Huntsman's game plan.

Robert Mount, chief executive of Power Innovations International, a Lindon-based technology company, says he can't believe Huntsman isn't taking any Utah business leaders on the trip. He also doesn't understand it.

"Why in the world would he go to Mexico City? Is it going to help X, Y or Z business in Salt Lake City?" Mount asks. "The governor can't help me. He doesn't know who I am or what my company does."

Richard Nelson, a state economic development board member, says Huntsman is qualified to make the trip without taking business leaders.

As chief executive officer of Utah Information Technology Association, Nelson says he's hopeful Huntsman will return with company connections and big plans for Utah-Mexico partnerships.

Dave Rockwood, president of Pacific Rim Consulting Group, a Park City-based company, says he supports Huntsman's decision to head to Mexico because there's great potential for developing countries to look to Utah to buy products. It's also better to meet with people than trying to strike business deals through e-mails and phone calls.

"Even in a modern world, it always becomes a person-to-person transaction," Rockwood says.

Reyna, who volunteered on Huntsman's campaign, is a volunteer member of the 77-member Mexico Advisory Council, which is Fox's advisory group on international trade, business, immigration and politics.

He said he helped organize Huntsman's Mexico trip because he wants to see leaders start a dialogue about trade and immigration. He also hopes the trip encourages Fox to visit Utah.

"When a president visits a place, it's the biggest thing Mexicans can do to say they're interested in a better relationship," said Reyna, a Zions Bank regional president.

Muñoz, who will also be in Mexico City and meeting with Huntsman and Fox, said business in Mexico is based on face-to-face meetings. Huntsman's visit is like "an act of friendship, which is very important to us," he said.

"We appreciate the personal contact," Muñoz said.


The governor's trip

* Today: Depart for Mexico.

* Tuesday: Meeting with U.S. Ambassador Antonio Garza. Lunch meeting with the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico leaders.

* Wednesday: 30-minute meeting with Vicente Fox at Los Pinos, the president's house.

* Thursday: Return to Salt Lake City.

Source: Governor's Office






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