How CAFTA Shapes Up on First Coast; Trade Agreement Will Reverberate throughout Jacksonville Area

Article excerpt

Byline: TIMOTHY J. GIBBONS

In a cavernous facility down a side road in Macclenny, dozens of workers put the final touches on sport coats destined for department stores around the country.

This week, many of the garments have arrived from China, but typically, most of the clothing comes from the factory that Macclenny Product's parent company owns in Nicaragua or one it contracts with in the Dominican Republic.

That ratio will shift even further away from Asia, said Russ Holder, director of distribution for the plant, if Congress signs off on the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

The agreement extends the free trade zone created by the North American Free Trade Agreement to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. NAFTA, the earlier agreement, created a free trade zone stretching from Canada to Mexico.

"What CAFTA would afford us is quicker turnaround," Holder said, explaining that it can take six weeks for the Macclenny shop to receive an order from Central America.

From China, it could take three months.

One of the reasons Holder doesn't order more from Central America is because of quotas placed on the number of wool garments that can be imported from those countries. CAFTA would get rid of those quotas, and, Holder said, help the company keep its 75 employees in Macclenny.

"If, in fact, you were importing 100 percent from China, there's a range of jobs you wouldn't need anymore," he said. "The way the business is run now you need those jobs here."

For example, the Macclenny facility coordinates fabric shipments to the factories in Latin America. Chinese factories, on the other hand, handle that process on their own.

The impact of the trade agreement on employment -- as well as what it will do to family farms, manufacturers, workers, the enviornment, the sugar industry and a host of other parts of life -- is a matter of some debate: Proponents of CAFTA say the agreement opens the Latin American market to more U.S. exports, ranging from agricultural products to manufactured goods, as well as helping regional garment makers compete with Asia and strengthening democracies in the area. Those opposed to the deal say it will open the door for U.S. jobs to move to Latin America, will devastate the U.S. sugar industry and impose low labor standards on workers in those countries.

On the First Coast, many say the main effect of CAFTA would be to boost the region's activity as a link on the supply chain stretching between Latin America and the United States. Local businesses involved with importing and exporting to and from the area say the agreement would lead to an increase in business, both for local manufacturers and for the companies that ship their product.

Each week, ships from Jacksonville carry containerloads of goods to the Dominican Republic, while items bound for Central American countries are loaded onto trucks and trains here to make the trip to South Florida ports.

Although there's no direct service to Central America through the port, the trade agreement has the potential to increase business enough that some shippers might move business to Jacksonville, said Raul Alfonso, the director of Latin American marketing and trade development for the Jacksonville Port Authority.

"There's a future for Jaxport with the passage of CAFTA," Alfonso said. "It creates a bigger pie that we can get a piece of."

Florida East Coast Industries, whose railroad line ships goods to South Florida ports for transport to Central America, will also see an increase in business, said Husein Cumber, vice president of public affairs for the St. Augustine-based company.

"Any business involved with trade will become a direct beneficiary," he said. "The ports benefit, the steamship lines benefit, the railroads benefit, the trucking carriers benefit. …