November 11, 1997 in Nation/World

Trade Group Pushes Agenda For Northwest Five States, Two Canadian Provinces Marshal Forces

David Gunter Staff writer
 

It was a bloodless coup, the quietest of revolutions.

Marching to the drumbeat of economic necessity, the private sector in five Northwest states and two Canadian provinces has formed a de facto state. It contains 19 million people and does $350 billion in trade.

For lack of a better name, they call it The Region.

“We have the 10th-largest economy in the world,” said Roger Bull, a former Canadian consulate general who acts as executive director for an organization called the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region.

About 150 members of the group met in Coeur d’Alene on Monday to take a broad view of how the region can turn financial muscle into political clout.

“This is not an attempt to create a Republic of the Northwest,” Bull said. “There are distinct differences between Canadians and Americans. But one thing we have in common is that our governments don’t pay attention to Alberta, British Columbia or the Northwest states.”

They are starting to, according to Idaho Lt. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, who said the size of the region guarantees it will get noticed.

“We’re talking real estate here,” Otter said before delivering the keynote address for Monday’s meeting. “It includes Alaska, the Yukon, Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. That’s one contiguous chunk of dirt.”

Working sessions are planned through today on topics ranging from agriculture to international finance.

On Monday, about 20 people attended a workshop on telecommunications that, among other things, explored the role of electronic screening in speeding up border crossings.

An afternoon session focused on how proposed U.S. legislation to require registration of Canadian visitors would affect the $1 billion-a-day north-south trade along the length of the border.

One of the biggest crowds turned out for a panel on transportation, where 35 business people and politicians wrestled with the issue of freight haulers who cross the U.S.-Canada border with less than a full load. To the uninitiated, it’s a patently boring problem. To those involved in matters of cross-border trade, it is a loose thread that has snarled the flow of commerce.

Because those trucks are processed differently, they sit idle at border stations during off-peak traffic hours and are forced to enter Vancouver, B.C., or Seattle during rush hour. The result is late deliveries and congested highways in already clogged traffic corridors.

A simple review of staffing procedures would remove the bottleneck, the transportation work group decided.

This solution-minded approach to individual problems is one of the organization’s strong points, Bull said.

“When you take something vast and fundamental, there’s always the danger that you’ll just end up talking about it,” he said. “We try to make progress on the smaller things so we can clear the deck for the big ones.”

Idaho Sen. Jack Riggs, R-Coeur d’Alene, listened in on the transportation workshop as part of his legislative effort to fund improvements for U.S. Highway 95. Like Otter, he was able to look outside state and national borders to see regional implications.

“We tend to draw lines on a map, but they’re artificial lines,” Riggs said. “In this region, we share the same general interests from both an economic and an environmental standpoint.”

Protecting the environment was Job One for a working group on recycling. For Terry Finnerty, an extension educator for the University of Idaho, the session allowed him to take the wheel, rather than reinvent one.

“We’re doing some projects with area nurseries and Christmas tree farms on recycling mill wastes,” Finnerty said. “There was a lady speaking today who’s already been working on these kinds of projects and she’s giving us ideas we can use.”

David Coutts, a member of the legislative assembly in Alberta and president of Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, said information-sharing started almost as soon as the organization was formed in 1991.

“We found out in the ‘80s that government doesn’t have all the answers,” he said. “In the ‘90s, we started forming public/private partnerships to not only position ourselves in the market, but to create markets.”

Otter believes the diversity of products - from Idaho potatoes to Washington apples to Canadian minerals - sets the Northwest up as a potential economic world power.

Comparing the region to a fledgling trade organization, he said it is more likely to succeed if government stays out of the way.

“If we were going to hang up a sign, I’d rather see it reading: ‘Government not at work,”’ Otter said.

, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition

Cut in the Spokane edition


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