States, cities look for ways to help small businesses sell goods abroad

Spurred by changes in the economy and an awareness of the ''hidden potential'' of small businesses, some cities and states are trying to develop overseas export markets for local products.

These cities and states apparently are unwilling to wait for the Reagan administration and Congress to conclude their free trade/protectionism debate. They are sprinting ahead with their own overseas sales programs.

* In Dallas, Mayor A. Starke Taylor Jr. has plans to turn the bustling Texas town into an ''international city.'' The former international cotton merchant is setting up a task force on international trade. The task force is designed to study ways to promote the city overseas, to encourage development of a free-trade zone for assembling foreign-made parts without suffering import penalties, and to beef up a ''protocol office'' charged with entertaining foreign officials.

* Washington State, seeking to make itself the ''gateway to China,'' recently sent a friendship delegation to that country. It was headed by Gov. John Spellman (R) and included businessmen, farmers, educators, and state officials. Washington is the only state with a full-time nongovernment China relations council.

* Last month, Rhode Island opened an economic development office in Geneva, Switzerland. It is designed to attract foreign investment and tourism to the state and market products overseas for Rhode Island firms.

About 25 states now have trade offices in European countries and about 20 have them in Japan.

Small businesses are likely to be the main beneficiaries of city and state efforts to promote overseas trade.

Currently, about 85 percent of US exports are produced by 5 or 6 percent of US firms, according to the National Association of State Legislatures. But, says Norton Berman, director of Rhode Island's Department of Economic Development, ''We haven't begun to scratch the surface in terms of the number of American companies involved in exporting their products.''

The eagerness of American firms to jump into the export market and the willingness of local governments to support their efforts appears to be matched only by a desire on the part of overseas firms to buy American, despite the stronger dollar overseas that has jacked up the price of American exports.

''Overseas firms are eager to import more American products,'' says Howard B. Siegel of the Deutsch Group, a Wellesley, Mass., company that represents the American Export Register. The register lists about 40,000 US firms willing to export and has subscribers in 154 countries. ''We've had several companies who had no experience in exporting, and within a year of placing an ad are doing in excess of $100,000 worth of business.''

What is holding American firms back is the lack of technical assistance and state-level financing for the small and medium-sized companies that are most eager to join the export rush. Unable to get loans or necessary information, small firms have had to drop potential customers.

The General Electric Company mechanical drive turbine plant in Fitchburg, Mass., recently lost an export bid because it was unable to obtain sufficient capital. The federal Export-Import Bank provided two-thirds of the capital, but GE could not secure the remainder from private sources.

As a result of such cases, Massachusetts - where exports of manufactured goods totaled $4.7 billion in 1980 - is considering an alternative export financing body to act as something of a state-level Export-Import bank. Roughly half a dozen states have instituted such programs in the last two years.

Other options include allowing foreign trade banks to establish international banking operations within states and granting tax credits on export sales above a certain base.

Cities and states aren't the only governmental entities pounding the drumbeat of trade. Florida Gov. Robert Graham has called for the establishment of a ''Southern Common Market'' that would promote overseas trade on behalf of the region and allow for such things as interstate banking.

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