Fresh Start in International Trade

September 09, 1991

Eric Feldmann's departure from the helm of the Maryland International Division provides an opportunity to make more effective an agency roiled by identity and political troubles. Last week, legislators, responding to complaints, demanded a performance audit. A special joint legislative committee, meanwhile, has recommended that some of the division's duties be handed off to the World Trade Center Institute, a non-profit group jointly funded by the state and private companies. Four key people have jumped ship in recent months.

With a budget of $4.2 million and long-term objectives, the division is a ready target for legislators looking for somewhere to swing the budget ax. But its problems are real. The division has been the target of frequent criticism inside and outside the business community. A recurring theme is its preoccupation with flashy trade missions -- complete with first-class travel and accommodations -- at the expense of nuts-and-bolts advice and field work for local businesses.

The International Division is in a state of flux. Awaiting Mr. Feldmann's successor is the job of establishing a balance between boosterism and substantive, productive work with smaller and medium-sized concerns. International trade is and should be a priority in state economic development. But the best way to accomplish this goal is unclear. One legislative idea is to privatize much of the state's international trade program. Under this scenario, the state would fund overseas offices and a home office in Baltimore.

The notion of some blend of government and privatization is an attractive one. Many services -- advertising and graphics come immediately to mind -- could be had for free from companies interested in getting exposure in the local international business community. Private businesses also should have a more active role in shaping the division's agenda: who better to articulate business' needs than those on the front lines?

State officials will know considerably more about what needs to be done once the legislative audit is completed next month. In the meantime, care should be taken in choosing a successor to Mr. Feldmann. For all its troubles, the division has been successful at raising awareness about international opportunities among Maryland businesses. The task now is turning that awareness into sales here and abroad.

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