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Could Gulfport become NAFTA portal for Europe, Asia and Africa?

Turkish mayors visit Mississippi on business tour

What does Mississippi have in common with Turkey?

• Magnolia trees. The state tree of Mississippi is also common and greatly valued in Turkey, where the magnolia is also native.

• Both Mississippi and Turkey are strategically located for intercontinental trade. Mississippi is in the center of the NAFTA zone, while Turkey is centrally located to Europe, Asia and Africa.

• While currently Turkey isn’t in the top 20 foreign trade partners with Mississippi, businessmen and politicians from both countries see opportunities for alliances that would significantly increase both the presence of Turkey and Mississippi in international trade.

• English is widely spoken in Turkey, creating less of a language barrier than with other trading partners. One major university in Turkey, Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara, the country’s capital, teaches classes only in English.

Recently three mayors representing large districts of Istanbul, which has a population of 12 million, traveled to Mississippi to discuss strategic partnerships to take advantage of the changing nature of international trade that could be of value to Mississippi as well as Turkey. The mayors were Hasan Akgun, representing Buyukcekmece municipality; Mustafa Degirmenci, representing Avcilar municipality, and S.Haldun Ozbatur, representing Kucukcekmece municipality.

While visiting the three mayors, along with Turkish business leader Akif Yorgancioglu and Hattiesburg businessman Dr. William H. “Rusty” Durham, vice president of Magnolia Investments, met with most of the top political leaders of Mississippi: U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows, U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, State Auditor Phil Bryant, Attorney General Mike Moore, McComb Mayor J.C. Woods and Gulfport Mayor Bob Short. They also met with many business leaders and with education officials from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) and the University of Mississippi (UM).

Yorgancioglu sees great opportunities for expanded Turkish-Mississippi trade.

“You are in the middle of NAFTA,” said Yorgancioglu, who is CEO of Nova Logistics, a freight forwarding business with 5,000 offices around the world, and a past vice president of the Turkish Export Association. “We’re in the middle of Europe, Asia and Africa. As your U.S. Majority Leader Trent Lott said to us, the U.S. and Turkey have been close political and military allies for 70 years. Magnolias grow in Istanbul, and the exact same tree grows here. There are a lot of similarities between Mississippi and Turkey. The trees are the same and the feelings are the same. It is a God-given thing.”

Yorgancioglu, whose father was the third highest-ranking political leader in Turkey for many years, and Durham are partnering to set up Turkish manufacturing facilities in the Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) in Gulfport. Local workers will be hired to produce goods that will be sold primarily in Canada, the U.S. and South America. Also, Turkish importers will use the FTZ facilities to purchase U.S. goods to sell to the rest of the world.

The first trade arrangement was finalized in early May, and involves one of Mississippi’s top commodities, poultry. The U.S. isn’t allowed to sell chickens directly to the European Union (EU) because of trade barriers. But through the agreement with Magnolia Investments, 45,000 tons whole frozen chickens from Mississippi worth $35 million will be imported into Turkey, where the chickens will be cut and packaged for export to the EU.

Because of concerns about mad cow disease and problems with foot-and-mouth disease, demand for poultry has increased greatly in the EU. And since Mississippi’s was exporting a great deal of chicken to Russia until a couple of years ago, the new market is important to Mississippi poultry producers and to the state’s economy.

Mississippi poultry will also be going to Russia via Turkey. Yorgancioglu, who received a national award from the Turkish government in 1984 after paying $15 million in income taxes, said Turkey is buying natural gas from Russia and will pay for the product half with money and half with supplies of chicken.

Another potential benefit of closer relationships between Mississippi and Turkey is sales of soybeans and corn. Currently Turkey is buying Mississippi soybeans through New York brokers. The direct buying relationship being planned would cut out the middleman, and improve profits for both Mississippi and Turkish businesses.

Yorgancioglu and Durham see many possible Turkish manufacturers and traders set up at the FTZ in Gulfport.

“This fits in perfectly with the $250-million expansion of the State Port in Gulfport, and the $40-million purchase and upgrade of the railroad between Gulfport and Hattiesburg,” said Durham, who formerly worked as a physician in McComb. “The railroad goes through the Free Trade Zone. The Turkish delegation was very impressed with how much money is being put into improving our transportation infrastructure.”

Durham said the FTZ allows raw material from Canada, for example, to be shipped to Mississippi, made into furniture, and exported to Europe with no customs or ad valorem tax costs. That is potentially a huge advantage.

“Mississippi people don’t realize how valuable Mississippi is to NAFTA because of the state’s location,” Yorgancioglu said.

“The portal to NAFTA for Europe, Asian and Africa will be Gulfport,” Durham predicts.

The goal of the two men and their allies is ambitious: Make Turkey the number one foreign trade partner with Mississippi. Durham said this is a realistic goal because there is great potential for trade with Turkey.

There has been support from political and business leaders from both Mississippi and Turkey. Durham has met with the foreign minister of Turkey, and says the minister has pledged full support for the trade efforts. Durham was also grateful for the response from the top Mississippi politicians and business leaders who offered their support. And he was impressed by the efforts of the three Istanbul mayors, who represent 4.5 million people and 5,200 manufacturers, to facilitate the new trade partnerships.

“It’s a big deal for these mayors to be here,” Durham said. “They all paid their own way to come here, and were impressed with what they saw. I have been to Turkey many times in the past year and a half, and have always felt at home. I’m so proud three very important and successful mayors representing so many people could experience Mississippi hospitality so they, too, felt at home. They said they came to visit as Turks, and but they were leaving as Mississippians.”

The trade effort also has a cultural and educational component. Plans are being made to make two cities in Mississippi, Jackson and possibly Gulfport, sister cities with Istanbul. And two Turkish universities, Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara and Marmara University in Istanbul, will become sister universities to the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi. Middle Eastern Technical University is the best-known university in the Middle East, and has produced many business and political leaders as alumni.

Student exchanges are planned between the universities in Mississippi and Turkey.

“We will make friendships between the young ones in Turkey and in Mississippi,” Yorgancioglu said. “They will learn to respect and love each other so this friendship can bring long-term beneficial relationships. That is the beginning of everything.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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