Sister City project creates French business connection Local companies hope overseas links spur growth

April 23, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

These days, doing business often means speaking in another tongue. With that in mind, Columbia this week said "bonjour" to 16 visiting French business people seeking to forge links with the town.

The five-day "Business to Business Exchange with Cergy-Pontoise, France," sponsored by the Columbia Association (CA), began Sunday and is a first in the history of Columbia's 19-year-old Sister City Program.

The CA established the $50,000-a-year program to foster cultural understanding with its sister cities, Cergy-Pontoise, France, and Tres Cantos, Spain. Up to this point, the relationships mainly have promoted student and cultural exchanges.

But this week's various events are designed to strengthen business ties. In the fall, some local companies plan to visit Cergy-Pontoise -- home to what one French representative called the largest concentration of small businesses in Europe. Next spring, a group from Tres Cantos may come to Columbia.

Such exchanges come as more U.S. businesses seek opportunities abroad, said Michael Kaiser of Sister Cities International in Washington.

"Sister City traditionally has been cultural exchanges," he said. "We're doing much more in the economic development area because that's what the local governments want to do."

Mr. Kaiser was unable to say how much international business the nation's 1,080 sister city programs generate. But there are huge potentials: Last fall, when the mayor of Atlanta took 19 business people to South Africa, deals worth $800 million were signed.

dTC Richard Story, the Howard County Economic Development Authority's executive director, said this week's activities could give a boost to Howard. Among Maryland counties, Howard is second only to Montgomery in the number of foreign-owned business employers, with about 70 such employers, he said.

"I think our economy is truly global today," Mr. Story said in an interview. This dialogue potentially could generate "significant business trade. The world is our oyster."

The nine French businesses taking part in this week's event include car repair, printing and computer services. Among the 50 to 60 U.S. companies participating are Bell Atlantic, First National Bank and the Japanese-owned Shimadzu Scientific Instruments Inc., the county's largest foreign-owned employer.

They may establish partnerships and export and import products.

"Everybody has different objectives," said Laurie Sears, Columbia's Sister City coordinator. The late James Rouse, Columbia's founder,"aligned people with different cultures and races. [This will] allow them to seek business opportunities and meet with others to expand relationships."

The costs for this week's event have been minimized through donations from local businesses, government agencies and educational institutions.

At the Gateway Building yesterday, Mr. Story welcomed the French representatives and pointed out similarities between the two communities.

For example, Howard has 220,000 residents and its French counterpart has 183,000; Howard is sandwiched between Baltimore and Washington, and Cergy-Pontoise is about 25 miles from Paris.

Both communities were created in the late 1960s.

Howard has about 6,000 companies and 96,000 jobs, and Cergy-Pontoise has 3,500 companies and 80,000 jobs, said Massis Maslak, a French intern who helped organize the visit.

"It's really one huge marketplace," he said.

Judging from the reaction of business people yesterday, that market could prove lucrative for both parties.

Through an interpreter, Daniel Domain, 47, of Docks Pontoisiens, a French bathroom and heating equipment wholesaler, said he came to find a U.S. distributor.

Looking for someone to export his Howard County spring water, Harry M. Dunbar, president of Tabar Distribution Co., handed Mr. Domain a complimentary bottle. "France sells a lot of mineral water, but mineral water is not good for everyone," he said later.

And Chris Cotter, president of Cotter Advertising in Ellicott City, said he has wanted to do business with the French after honeymooning in Paris three years ago.

"I like it there so much so I could stand to go over there a couple of times," he said.

Pub Date: 4/23/96

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