Trade missions for Maryland

June 29, 1994

Sure, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has overdone it, but the next governor would be foolish to stop making the kinds of overseas trade missions that help bring business to Maryland. Yet none of the gubernatorial candidates is praising Mr. Schaefer for his missionary work. Instead, they are sniping at him for spending so much time and money on these foreign tours.

"It's essential," said Mr. Schaefer, "that international trade be a priority for the next governor." But, he noted at an economic development conference in Cambridge last weekend, "They're not interested. They don't understand."

Mr. Schaefer is just back from his 14th (we think that's the right number, but we may have missed one or two) overseas mission, this one to Europe. No deals were struck, but the high-level business contacts cannot be underestimated. Only a governor can set up a meeting with the head of the giant Renault car company, who holds the fate of Western Maryland's big Mack Trucks plant in his hands. Only a governor can lay the groundwork with a German company scouting sites in Anne Arundel County. Only a governor can deliver the type of sales pitch that would impress a German auto parts company that wants to locate near BMW's new plant in the Carolinas.

What has annoyed critics is that Mr. Schaefer assembled a large and expensive entourage for many of his earlier overseas trips. But recent trips have been kept small and the cost to taxpayers has been modest. For instance, the $50,000 price tag of this last European journey will be re-paid many times over by some of the job-creating ventures that will be the end result.

Mr. Schaefer plans one more trip to Asia before he leaves office. This is where constant overtures are essential to win the friendship and confidence of business and government groups. Mr. Schaefer has had big success in this arena, especially in persuading the Evergreen shipping line to boost its service to the Port of Baltimore.

The candidates running to replace Mr. Schaefer shy away from endorsing this sort of overseas boosterism. That is a mistake. Maryland is in competition with 49 other states for overseas business. The next governor will have to become our foreign ambassador. Even Rep. Helen Bentley, who so shamelessly engaged in Japan-bashing and rampant protectionism in the Congress, would have to eat some crow and wage a campaign to lure foreign plants to the Free State. That's the nature of the economic development wars these days. Even if the candidates for governor don't want to admit it.

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