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Utahns hope Japan tour reaps economic rewards

Utah economic development officials are hoping a whirlwind trip around Japan will yield big rewards for the state and its businesses.

David B. Winder, executive director of the Utah Department of Community and Economic Development, returned to work Wednesday after spending six days in Japan, where he and Gov. Mike Leavitt tried to convince businessmen and politicians of the benefits of doing business with and investing in Utah.Winder returned with a large stack of business cards and memories of watching some Olympic events in Nagano. But he said that in addition to getting ideas Utah businesses will be able to use when the Games come here in 2002, the state's delegation was able to gain access to some powerful people.

The trip started with a day in Tokyo, where Winder said he and Leavitt spoke with Thomas Foley, former House speaker and current U.S. ambassador to Japan. Foley is trying to level the playing field there for U.S. companies, and Winder said he hopes to tune Utah businesses in to some of Foley's plans.

For example, he said, Foley is trying to help U.S. companies that want to bid on construction work for a new airport in Nagoya. Several Utah businesses may be interested in such contracts, Winder said.

Also in Tokyo, Winder and Leavitt met with the leaders of the Japan Coal Development Company, which is owned by a consortium of the nation's nine public utilities.

About 10 percent of all Utah coal is exported to Japan, Winder said, and the consortium's leaders were concerned last fall when Union Pacific Railroad's merger problems led to some delays in Utah coal shipments.

"We met with them and representatives of Utah coal companies to assure them of our intent to provide good coal with good service to Japan," Winder said. "They were just worried about our service."

He said demand for coal is increasing in Japan, even as it remains stable in Utah.

"We want to increase those exports, so we were paving the way for that," Winder said.

The Utah delegation also met with representatives of three of the five largest venture capital firms in Japan, asking them to look beyond California's Silicon Valley when searching for investments. Some of the executives promised to visit Utah within the next few months, Winder said.

He said Nagoya - the industrial heartland of Japan - was the last stop on his trip. There the Utahns met with the head of Japan Central Railway and talked more about increasing coal purchases with a regional economic development director.

While most American states focus their Japanese economic development efforts on Tokyo alone, Winder said, only Utah and West Virginia are working hard to develop contacts in Nagoya. And he said the region has real potential.

"More Utah exports go to Japan than any other country," Winder said. "And we expect Japan will get better in the future."