Deseret Morning News graphic

MEXICO CITY — Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. tried out his new plan for international economic development on a group of Mexican business leaders Tuesday in anticipation of his meeting today with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

"That's where we close the deal," Huntsman said of the half-hour meeting with Fox, scheduled mid-day at the Mexican president's official residence, Los Pinos, and to be followed by a press conference with the Mexican media.

The governor is trying to sell what he's calling the "Mexico-Utah Alliance for Prosperity." Besides promoting economic development and tourism, it also encourages education and cultural exchanges.

Huntsman intends the plan — which he had considered naming a "partnership" for prosperity rather than an alliance as he worked out the details on the flight to Mexico City — to be a model for economic development efforts in China, India and Canada as well.

The governor told members of the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico that a state the size of Utah can't afford to compete for international business in too many places, so he's selected what he believes will be the best markets in coming years.

"You can't be everywhere in a state that's 2.5 million people in size. But you can pick your markets," Huntsman said to the dozen or so business leaders mainly from Mexico City who gathered to hear the "el Gobernador de Utah" speak at the luncheon held at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in a posh area of the city.

Mexico is the first foreign country the governor has visited since taking office in January. He said of the four countries where he intends to focus the state's international economic development efforts, Mexico is "perhaps the most important" even though that state ranks as only the eighth-largest market for Utah goods. Huntsman said he expects trade will increase significantly between Utah and Mexico.

Larry Rubin, director general of the American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico, said the organization has hosted a number of governors and lieutenant governors pitching economic development deals from Texas, Louisiana, California and other states.

"There is a lot of competition. Governors come here frequently looking for business," Rubin said. "Every state is different. Utah definitely has a tourism aspect to it that other states don't possess." Plus, he said, there are many Mormons in Mexico who know the state as the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Huntsman outlined the plan he will present to the Mexican president to the business leaders, promising that within the next six months to a year, Utah will send more traditional trade missions to Mexico focused on biotechnology and manufacturing, particularly supplying air bags and other parts to Mexico's growing automaking industry.

As for tourism, he said he wants to increase the four weekly direct flights between Utah and Mexico as well as increase the state's profile. The governor said a group of tour operators he met with earlier in the day said they see advertising about Colorado and other states competing for travelers but not from Utah. A $10 million boost in travel promotion passed by the 2005 Legislature should change that, Huntsman said.

Utah has culture to offer, too, he said. "We're not a homogeneous culture," the governor said. "We're a blend of people in Utah. We're more diverse. We need to put that on display a little more than we have."

As for education, Huntsman said he was inviting the Mexican secretary of education to visit Utah to see what kind of language exchange programs might be possible. He has suggested that could include tapping Mexican teachers to

help immigrant students learn English as a second language.

Joe Reyna, a Zions Bank regional president who campaigned for Huntsman and is accompanying him here in Mexico, said Utah is setting itself apart from other states seeking economic development opportunities south of the border by offering more than just business deals. "We're giving back," Reyna said. "That is the base for an economic relationship. We have to understand that."

The governor's proposals appeared to be well-received by the business leaders, who asked questions and made suggestions after the governor's presentation.

Jorge Santistevan, an attorney whose clients include an air bag manufacturer with an operation in Utah, warned the governor that doing business in Mexico can be difficult. He asked if the state was considering joint ventures or other direct investment. Huntsman said he was most interested in finding new export opportunities for the state.

The need to first establish, in essence, a diplomatic relationship with a foreign market is a lesson Huntsman learned as a U.S. Ambassador to Singapore and a former U.S. trade representative in Asia.

He told the Deseret Morning News about his proposal shortly after arriving here Monday, saying that without such groundwork, trade missions can be "scatterbrained."

Huntsman will invite Fox to make his first visit to Utah, likely this fall. That's where a formal agreement detailing the governor's plan is expected to be signed. Those details will be left to groups the governor said he would name soon over each of the three areas — economic development and tourism, education and culture.

Consul General of Mexico for Utah Salvador Jimenez and someone from the governor's office will oversee the effort, Huntsman said.

Because Fox cannot run for re-election, the governor said he is meeting with presidential candidate Santiago Creel today. Creel is from the same political party as Fox, but other candidates are also vying for the job in what is already a hotly contested race.

Huntsman will also sit down with officials from the state-owned oil company, Pemex, as well as a reporter from Mexico's top newspaper, Reforma. The governor is scheduled to leave for Salt Lake City Thursday morning.

Although his day was filled with meetings that included time with the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu, Huntsman found time Tuesday to tour the National Museum of Anthropology.