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U.S. official sees Centrallia as venue to promote state

Rock Nelson might be from South Dakota, but he is a big fan of the entrepreneurial spirit that drives Manitoba, which is embodied by the World Trade Centre Winnipeg.

It could be because South Dakota and Manitoba have a lot in common, with strong, diversified economies despite long distances to major consumer markets, and the harsh climates and relatively small populations both have.

Rock, director of the South Dakota International Trade Center, has developed such strong links with his Manitoba counterparts that he has taken large delegations from the state to the two Centrallia business-to-business events that have been held in Winnipeg since 2010, with plans to attend the third this May 25-27.

“They’re good people,” said Rock of his Winnipeg counterparts. “When they put on a show or event it’s done right. I wouldn’t expose my clients to it if it wasn’t.”

Described as a “speed-dating opportunity” for small and medium-sized businesses, it’s the fourth such event held in Winnipeg and is expected to attract 700 participants from throughout Canada and 30 other countries to the RBC Convention Centre, where they can tap new opportunities in domestic and international markets.

Nelson, who has held his position for 17 years, holds several economic development credentials and is an unabashed promoter of his home state. He sees Centrallia as a key event to advance the interests of South Dakota businesses.

“The benefit is that all the participants are somewhat vetted ahead of time,” he said. “I can get on a plane and go to France or Finland (to promote South Dakotan businesses), but I can do that at Centrallia (and at a much lower cost) and it’s all under one roof.”

He has taken delegations of about 12 to 14 business leaders from the state to the event every year, most of which were pleased with the results. He became such a booster of the event his state now has a booth, where attendees can learn about his state’s economic advantages.

And despite a relatively small population of 858,000 ranking it as the 46th most sparsely populated in the U.S., and being far from major population centres, it has managed to turn itself into one of the most economically stable states in the nation.

In that regard, it has a great deal in common with Manitoba, a province with 1.28 million people, located far from major Canadian cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

As head of the South Dakota International Trade Center, Rock represents a much larger geographical footprint than just the state. The centre includes part of Minnesota, northwest Iowa and northeastern Nebraska.

“When a client has issues about importing (products or services) or has exporting issues they come to see us,” he said. “My services are provided for free.”

With funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the U.S. Small Business Development Centers, from the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, Sioux Falls Development Foundation and the South Dakota Governor’s Office of Economic Development, it is one of the most active promoters of economic development among the U.S. plains states.

“I do international trade seminars and workshops, bring in experts on inter-national trade and carry out other functions (including helping individual businesses seek out other markets),” said Rock.

While agriculture is the state’s economic mainstay (it is the leading producer in the U.S. of oats, barley, rye, flaxseed and alfalfa), it no longer leads the state in employment or share of gross state product.

Manufacturing is now the economic driver, along with the service sector. Tourism is also a major part of its economy, with world-famed Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills and the Badlands drawing millions of visitors to the state each year.

While many of the states’ manufacturing businesses are based on agriculture, others have emerged as a result of the state’s entrepreneurial spirit; including a trophy manufacturing plant and a manufacturer and marketer of pet products, a plant that manufactures equipment for trucks and others that manufacture mining equipment.

“South Dakotans have a strong work ethic, which has led to this entrepreneurial spirit,” said Rock. “In fact, we’re actually hurting for employees, with an unemployment rate of 2.3 per cent (one of the lowest in the U.S.).”

But with world-class cultural facilities and recreation facilities, including a performing arts centre and a new 12,500 seat arena, he said there are so many diversions that the relatively cold winters are not a large factor in everyday life.

“We continue to stress our good quality of life,” he said.

The state also has three universities, which makes state residents some of the best educated in the U.S.

The Western Producer is a sponsor of this event through its parent company, Glacier FarmMedia.

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