Gov. Nikki Haley will lead a delegation of Commerce Department and regional economic development recruiters to an international air show in London next week to try to build on Boeing’s presence in the state.
Although Haley was criticized last year for the $127,000 spent on the trip, and recruiters say that deals are not closed during the meetings and receptions, the annual pilgrimages are essential to building the state’s budding aerospace industry, Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said during a conference call with reporters Thursday morning.
In the past year, the S.C. Department of Commerce has announced that seven aircraft supply and repair companies are coming to the state, bringing a combined 890 jobs and $102 million in investment, many with ties to Boeing.
“It’s the biggest marketing event of the year for Commerce,” he said.
State officials have been going to London’s Farnborough International Air Show and the Paris Air Show, which are held on alternating years, since 2005.
A former Commerce Department official heavily involved in the Boeing deal told The State that those early trips helped keep South Carolina’s name in front of aerospace giants’ decision makers.
“It gave us the opportunity to be in front of Boeing annually at a minimum,” said Jack Ellenberg, deputy secretary of commerce under Gov. Mark Sanford and now a recruiter for the State Ports Authority. “These are the biggest air shows in the world. (Attending them) is all about sowing seeds and developing relationships.”
Today, Boeing employs about 6,000 people in South Carolina and has completed a second 787 Dreamliner jet at its new North Charleston plant. It hopes to eventually build 3.5 of the fuel-efficient, long-distance passenger jets per month. As it reaches that goal, the company will need more materials and support from its suppliers, which state officials hope to attract to South Carolina.
“The show is not where you sit down and (close) a deal,” Hitt said “It’s a sales show for the aviation industry. It’s not an economic development event, but … it’s an ideal place to be able to see a concentration of people in a short amount of time.”
Joining Haley and Hitt on the trip will be one of the governor’s staffers and two security guards, along with three other Commerce staffers and a delegation from the six regional economic development alliances.
Haley and her group will arrive in London on Sunday evening and fly out Wednesday morning. The commerce and regional recruiters will stay throughout the week.
Hitt said the group has scheduled a reception and between 45 and 50 meetings with aviation executives – almost all of them with some relationship to Boeing. The governor will attend about one-third of those meetings, particularly with corporate chief executives, he said.
“The governor is key,” he said. “I can’t tell you how important it is to have CEO-to-CEO relationships. (The governor) is a very important person to have walk in the room.”
The delegation expects to spend about $100,000 on the trip, which is funded by a combination of state, regional and private money. Hitt said the expense is worth it because they will be able to meet with so many executives in one place, rather than flying to their corporate headquarters or flying them to Columbia.
“It minimizes our expense,” he said.
Hitt said that a complete accounting of public money spent would be provided when the show is over.
Haley was criticized for a similar trip to the Paris Air Show last year. It cost taxpayers $127,000, which included luxuries such as a rented chalet, expensive hotel rooms and a side trip to Munich. Haley’s husband also attended, but Hitt said he paid his own way.
Michael Haley will not be in this year’s delegation and no side trips are planned, Hitt said. The governor also will have just one staffer with her, rather than two.
Despite the criticism, Hitt said having Haley at the show is essential to recruitment efforts “because many other states will have governors there as well.”