Commerce Secretary Pitches Gulf Coast Trade

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez leads a trade mission to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. Representatives of more than 30 U.S. companies went along Thursday to scope out post-Katrina investment opportunities.

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RENEE MONTANGE, host:

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and business leaders are back on the road in the Gulf Coast this morning, looking for investment opportunities. The commerce secretary calls this the country's first domestic trade mission and hopes it will bring much needed revenue and jobs to a region trying to recover from last season's hurricane.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

Before heading to Mississippi, this trade delegation made stops in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans. An aid handed out maps to the business leaders as they left the World Trade Center and boarded a bus for a tour.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Unidentified Woman: There you go.

Unidentified Man: Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: You're welcome.

Unidentified Man: Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: You're welcome.

CORLEY: Thirty-two companies in all are part of the delegation including Petrochemical firms, retailers, and 11 homebuilders and realtors. Commerce Secretary Gutierrez calls it a unique situation. Instead of going overseas to look for opportunities in foreign markets, he says the devastated Gulf Coast provides tremendous growth opportunities.

Sec. CARLOS GUTIERREZ (U.S. Secretary of Commerce): So you have the safety of the U.S. You don't have the risk of currency devaluation or a risk of the government changing because of a coup. You know, the types of risks that you encounter when you invest your money in some faraway lands. This is the United States.

CORLEY: But there are inherent risks in the Gulf, worker and housing shortages and an upcoming hurricane season. Steve Davis, an executive with KB Home, who grow up in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, says every market has its logistical problems. He says his company built thousands of homes last year and is back in business in the Gulf.

The homebuilder purchased land in Baton Rouge and will soon break ground for new housing in New Orleans.

Mr. STEVE DAVIS (Executive, KB Home): I think that it is important that somebody do something, versus just talk about it. As well as, I think it's a confidence booster for the people that want to come back--that a national home builder like KB Home, a $10 billion dollar company, would come in and actually start building houses right away.

CORLEY: Economic development officials in Louisiana say about 81,000 businesses in the state were shut down by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and more than half have reopened. Shan Industry CEO Sheri Orlowitz has never operated in the Gulf Coast, but she's looking to expand a division of one of the manufacturing firms she owns.

She says the opportunities in the area are mind-boggling, especially because the incentives and federally approved tax breaks being offered.

Ms. SHERI ORLOWITZ (Chief Executive Officer, Shan Industry): I haven't had a moment to sit down and tally up all of the incentives. But when you talk about facility financing, if I can get below market rates to build a facility, that's wonderful.

CORYLEY: Orlowitz says she leaning towards locating her company in Mississippi. White House hurricane recovery coordinator Donald Powell, says he's hoping others in the delegation also realize that now is the time to act.

Mr. DONALD POWELL (White House Hurricane Recovery Coordinator): They'll make some money. Second thing is how important is this, the rebuilding of the largest, the largest disaster to ever hit America. I think everybody feels good about being part of that.

CORLEY: At least that's what Powell is counting on. In the meantime, Commerce Secretary Gutierrez says this domestic trade mission may be just the beginning, since so many people are committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast and making it better.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans.

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