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07 March 2015

Maine boosts efforts to lure Chinese investors

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine International Trade Center in January opened an office in Shanghai, seeing opportunity to target investors in specific areas, like food processing, aerospace and renewable energy, and earn a share of the increasingly large pie that is Chinese investment abroad.

“The upside [for Maine] is huge,” Thomas Shiekman, director of MITC’s Shanghai investment attraction effort, said during an interview in Portland. “The Chinese have a lot of money and a lot of money in foreign reserves that are getting fairly poor returns in U.S. bonds.”

Relaxed restrictions on foreign investment under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who took office in March 2013, opened the door for investment outbound from China to outpace foreign investment into the country for the first time last year, Shiekman said.

With that, Chinese investment in the United States has been on the rise, but not at nearly the clip of the country’s investment elsewhere.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimated China’s foreign direct investment at $101 billion in 2013. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated the U.S. got about $8.07 billion, or about 7.9 percent, of that amount.

This year, Shiekman’s goal is to organize two trips of Chinese investors to Maine, market the state at seafood shows in Hong Kong and the industrial center and seaport city of Qingdao, and build a list of Chinese companies interested in joint ventures or establishing businesses in the Northeast U.S.

He was in Maine recently for a two-week visit to speak with business leaders and policymakers here before heading back to China with plans to court investors in areas of specific demand in that country, like food safety.

“The Chinese consider Western food as something they can trust,” said Shiekman, who’s worked full time in China since 2006, currently with the business development firm Intralink. “That’s a huge boost from Maine, coming from the U.S. and a really clean part of the U.S. with pristine oceans.”

But that image, he said, is one that may have to be painted for Chinese investors.

“Maine, truth be told, is not on the map. It’s not New York or California, where there are large Chinese populations,” he said. “A lot of what we’re doing is trying to create different ways to educate people about the benefits of the state. Not many know about the benefits of the ports or proximity to Canada and Boston.”

Janine Cary, president of MITC, said looking to China for investment comes “at the right time” as investment from China shifts from raw materials in energy and minerals to manufacturing and production that, in some cases, serve a market to import goods back into China. And the year ahead will lay the groundwork for the three-year project.

“It just takes a long time to develop those leads and generate incoming visits,” Cary said. “Those will be the biggest challenges in year one.”

Shiekman will lead a three-person team at Intralink under the contract with the Maine International Trade Center.

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