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Lego Effort Shows State Building Bridges to Business--1 Block at a Time

April 18, 1993|BRADLEY INMAN | BRADLEY INMAN is an Oakland writer specializing in California business issues

When Caroline Petersen of the state commerce agency was in Berlin last month for an international trade expo, she took a side trip to Billund, Denmark, the headquarters of one of the world's biggest little construction companies--Lego Systems, the toy manufacturer.

At lunch with Svend Madsen, Lego's senior vice president, Petersen was treated to a buffet of pickled fish. "It's not the type of food I can normally stomach," she said. "But in the interests of the state of California, I ate it."

It wasn't the first time that state officials have swallowed hard to impress Lego representatives.

Indeed, as many as six senior-level officials of the Trade and Commerce Agency have worked on the state's campaign to woo the toy maker to build a 200-acre theme park and resort in Carlsbad.

Initially, Lego was considering 25 locations around the world, including eight in North America. Now it's down to only two: Carlsbad and Prince Williams County, Va.

"This is a really big deal," said Petersen. "It represents hundreds of permanent jobs, a long-term economic development opportunity for the state and a major tourist attraction--a destination resort with golf courses, hotels, the works," she said.

By the year 2000, the project could generate as many as 1,000 new jobs, according to state officials.

The campaign to attract Lego is evidence that state government is finally taking a more sophisticated and organized approach to attracting and retaining business. After years of criticism, the commerce agency is showing signs that it can compete with states that have spent years honing their business-expansion prowess. And Gov. Pete Wilson himself has shown a willingness to get involved in these guerrilla-style campaigns.

Just a couple of days after the Los Angeles riots last April, Wilson made a call to Lego President Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen to lobby for the $100-million resort. Since then, he has followed up with letters and, according to spokesman Kevin Eckery, has taken "a personal interest in seeing the project through."

On Wednesday, Wilson was on a conference call with San Diego-area officials, making last-minute decisions on the final marketing push for the Lego park.

Local economic development experts applaud the state's efforts. "They are all working as aggressively as they can," said Dan Pegg, president of the San Diego Economic Development Corp., a private, nonprofit business booster group.

But Pegg also pointed out that in many ways, state officials' "hands are tied, because they can't use state funds--unlike the competition." Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, he noted, has a "$2-million kitty to use at his discretion for promoting economic projects like this."

California law, on the other hand, establishes numerous constraints on how state funds can be used to promote economic development.

Jeanne Winnick, marketing director of the Trade and Commerce Agency, said California had stayed in the running for the Lego facility, in part, because of Wilson's new "Team California" approach to economic boosterism. The idea is to involve a raft of state agencies, private companies and trade groups in campaigns to retain or attract individual companies.

In the Lego effort, Commerce officials have coordinated the efforts of Caltrans, the governor's office and a scad of private organizations and local agencies. Together, they have argued that California's 195 million visitors a year and the state's "all-season appeal" make California a logical choice for Lego project.

"This is an international opportunity in publicity alone," said Pegg. "It seems a penny wise and a pound foolish not to make a bigger investment in economic development."

Lawmaker Seeks to Extend Family Leave

Assemblyman Terry Friedman (D-Encino) would like to broaden the scope of the state's family leave law by permitting workers to use their accumulated sick leave to care for an ill child, spouse or parent.

His bill, AB 158, which was approved by the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, would prohibit an employer from discriminating against employees who use their sick leave for attending to sick relatives.

Current law permits workers to take up to four months of unpaid leave to care for a sick parent, spouse or child. The Friedman measure would be the first attempt to broaden that right to paid leave by applying sick time.

Business opposes the measure, arguing that it will increase costs to employers.

State Budget Update Remains Downbeat

In his periodic analyses of the U.S. and California economies, State Finance Director Thomas W. Hayes is laying the groundwork for more bad news about the state budget.

Once a forum for hopeful predictions of impending turnarounds, his "Economic Updates" in the state's monthly Finance Bulletin have become noticeably downbeat lately.

In the April issue, the bulletin portrays the U.S. economy as "drifting," with consumer confidence "fading." Where Hayes cites gains, they are described as "marginal." Common adjectives are "weakening," "downsizing" and "falling."

The two-page summary describes the announcement earlier this month of a decline statewide in unemployment as "insignificant."

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