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New ND trade office leader steps in amid 'whirlwind'

Simon Wilson is the new North Dakota Trade Office director. David Samson / Forum News Service

BISMARCK—Amid fears of a looming trade war with China and efforts to adjust the agreement linking North American economies, Simon Wilson settled into his new role as head of the North Dakota Trade Office last month.

"It's been a whirlwind," he said in an interview this week. "But for me, it's a lot of opportunity ... There's a lot of need for kind of that advocacy."

Wilson started as the NDTO executive director March 19, about two weeks before the Trump administration revealed planned tariffs on Chinese products that prompted China to announce its own proposed duties on wheat, corn, soybeans and other items, the Washington Post reported. That sparked fears in North Dakota, which exported almost $31 million worth of agricultural products to China last year, according to federal data.

Wilson called for a quick resolution to ease uncertainty.

"Our position, and I think the state's position, has always been fair trade," he said. "When you put arbitrary, just picking and choosing tariffs in that way, it doesn't do anyone any good (on) both sides."

Meanwhile, negotiators are working on changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Wilson expects some tweaks to improve that pact instead of radical alterations.

Canada is North Dakota's largest export market by far, followed by Mexico, Australia and China, according to federal data. Oil and gas is the state's top export category by value, followed by petroleum and coal products, machinery and agricultural products.

Wilson was previously the director of operations for Titan Machinery, an agriculture and construction equipment dealer based in West Fargo.

He succeeded Dean Gorder, who resigned in October after more than seven years on the job. Gorder said this week it "was just the appropriate time for me to step aside" and pursue other opportunities. He landed at Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services, better known as AE2S.

The North Dakota Trade Office is a public-private organization with five employees based in Fargo that receives about three-fourths of its funding from the state Department of Commerce, Wilson said. It conducts trade missions and helps North Dakota exporters through training and outreach.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, who chairs the NDTO board that hired Wilson, hopes to expand the trade office's mission to boost exports "of all products from all corners of the state." He said the office's clientele has diminished as companies develop their own connections.

"That was the goal, is to get our numbers back up by broadening the spectrum of what types of clients are trade office members," Sanford said.

As for the trade disputes, Sanford said Gov. Doug Burgum has been supportive of President Donald Trump's "long-term plan."

"He wants fair trade agreements; he wants a level playing field," he said. "We believe it'll end up the best for the United States and for North Dakota."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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