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Levy seeking China food plant and 500 jobs

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy plans to fly

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy plans to fly to China and meet with business executives and politicians in Xuwen, located on a peninsula at the southern tip of the mainland. He expects to sign a sister-county agreement with Xuwen. (March 17, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Suffolk officials are trying to land a Chinese food-processing plant that would employ up to 500 workers, and County Executive Steve Levy will make a personal appeal in June.

Levy plans to fly to China and meet with business executives and politicians in Xuwen County, located on a peninsula at the southern tip of the mainland. He expects to sign a sister-county agreement with Xuwen, home to 650,000 people.

Xuwen officials invited Levy several weeks ago. The 10-day trip, Levy's second foreign excursion, will be paid for by the Chinese.

Accompanying Levy will be Yves Michel, Suffolk's economic development commissioner, and officials of the Queens-based civic group Asian-American Council. The council initially approached Levy in December about the food-processing facility after learning that Chinese investors were looking for sites in the United States.

Levy said the proposed factory would produce soda and ready-to-eat meals that require adding only hot water to prepare.

"We're talking about 400 to 500 jobs and millions of dollars in investment," he said.

Asked why the trip was necessary, Levy said he hoped to convey Suffolk's "seriousness" about pursuing foreign investment. "It puts us at a huge competitive advantage over others seeking their business . . . Seeing the top dog means a lot to investors," he said.

Michael S. Limb, the Asian council's executive chairman, agreed, adding the Chinese investors want to reduce the import duties and shipping costs they must pay on food sold in North America. That's possible in Suffolk because its foreign trade zone cuts duty fees.

"There's a lot of empty land here [for development]; China has no [such] land," said Limb, who once lived in Smithtown and now calls Manhasset home.

Limb first heard about plans for the food-processing plant in September when he helped Atlantic City, establish sister-city relationships in China and South Korea. He had worked on economic development projects for then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

While Levy hopes to land the factory before he leaves office in December, Limb said the June trip would be valuable even if the Chinese approval process were to drag into next year. Levy dropped his bid for a third term last month to resolve an investigation into his fundraising.

Given Levy's lame-duck status, some of his critics said the China trip was inappropriate. Levy had hoped to fly out on Friday, but last weekend the Chinese postponed the visit because Levy's counterpart in Xuwen fell ill. He will now leave on June 5.

"This seems absurd . . . He doesn't have to go to China to bring business to the county," said Paul Sabatino II, a former top aide to Levy. "Junkets to foreign countries are something to be frowned upon."

Savio Chan, president of the Melville-based consulting firm U.S.-China Partners Inc., disagreed, saying in-person meetings in China with investors were crucial.

However, Chan also advised Levy to explain the fundraising probe to his Chinese hosts. "It will be a question in the back of their minds," Chan said. "It's best to address it up front."

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