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Area officials in China sign two new trade agreements as part of continued push for hub

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 5, 2012 - With two new trade-related agreements in their briefcases, area business and civic leaders are returning Friday from another trip to China that they believe will bolster the region’s chances of becoming a true international freight gateway.

“We’ve built up some terrific networks of support,’’ said Tim Nowak, executive director of the World Trade Center St. Louis, during a telephone interview from Nanjing, one of St. Louis’ “sister cities’’ and where one of the agreements was signed.

Officially called a “memorandum of understanding’’ the document was with Nanjing’s trade council.

A few days earlier, a potentially more significant memorandum of understanding was signed in Shanghai by local representatives of the Midwest China Hub Commission and the American Society of Transportation and Logistics, which was holding a conference in China.

According to the official announcement, the document highlights the joint efforts “to partner on the critical next steps to make the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport a center for Chinese airfreight connections.”

The American Society of Transportation and Logistics “is made up of the shippers, carriers, and partners essential to trade,” the announcement said. With the agreement, “the two parties have committed to working together on establishing new airfreight routes between St. Louis and China; hosting and coordinating inbound and outbound transportation, organizing logistics and supply chain management delegation visits; and boosting trade between the United States and China.”

Nowak, the hub commission’s secretary, was among the signers. “What it means is collaboration between their members and our shippers, logistics providers, freight forwarders, supply-chain management,” he said. “To exchange contacts and support that we’ve sought for the last five years to increase freight capacity at Lambert.”

Said St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, who’s also on the trip, “There is no substitute for personal relationships. That's why I'm here. Growing exports from our region is extremely important as we see our economy rebounding.”

Nowak said that the personal connections made during the week-long trip were particularly important, as St. Louis leaders continue their quest to turn under-used Lambert into a freight hub. China has been seen as a likely partner because it’s already the third largest market in the world for Missouri products.

“The reality of where we’re at now, is that we need one or more carriers to start service,” Nowak said. “It’s connections more than the paper.”

In the fall of 2011, area civic and business leaders thought they had found such a Chinese carrier, but the trips ended with only a couple flights. Some officials contended privately at the time that the cancelled flights also might have been tied to the Missouri General Assembly’s failure to approve a proposed economic development package that included $60 million in state tax incentives aimed at encouraging freight-forwarders to promote Lambert as a cargo site for overseas shippers.

Meanwhile, a similar effort to attract Chinese cargo has been underway for years at nearby MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Ill.

Without discussing either issue, Nowak said Tuesday that there’s no question that the air cargo industry as a whole “is in a state of flux.” 

But he sought to promote the positive, emphasizing the trade-related enthusiasm that he and other area representatives were encountering on this trip.

The trip’s leaders include Nowak, Dooley and former U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., who heads up Kit Bond Strategies, a business development and consulting firm.

Nowak said he and others are optimistic that, aside from more trade, their continued trips -- and the hosting of visits from Chinese officials -- are bearing economic fruit. 

Nowak said St. Louis could be selected in a few years to host an international transportation conference, which would bolster the trade-related image of the region and Lambert.  “We have a strong base of support from the freight-forwarding community,’’ Nowak said. “This has been a very productive trip.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.