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Governor Turns On the Sales Pitch in Las Vegas

Schwarzenegger launches national billboard drive to attract business to state.

August 05, 2004|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger likes to say that there is little he won't do to lure business to California. And he strove to prove the point Wednesday, lending his celebrated face to a nationwide billboard campaign aimed at drumming up business for the state.

Schwarzenegger opened the publicity drive at a high-end shopping mall on the city's Strip in hopes of sending the message that California is prepared to compete aggressively with other states for businesses that want to expand. The billboards are going up here and in nearly a dozen cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Seattle -- an effort underwritten by a nonprofit jobs commission set up by the governor earlier this year.

"Arnold Says: "California Wants Your Business (Actually, he says, 'Kah-li-fornia.')," reads the billboard, which displays the governor's picture.

Oversized video screens at the head of a fashion show-style runway trumpeted his mall arrival: "See California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Live and in Person.''

Scores of shoppers waited more than an hour for his lunchtime appearance, pressing against barriers surrounding the stage and looking toward blue curtains from which Schwarzenegger would emerge. Then a screen lifted and a figure stood alone, his face obscured by a haze rising from the floor -- the governor. A smiling Schwarzenegger stepped from the cloud in a khaki suit and tie. He then walked the length of the runway toward the TV cameras as the crowd cheered.

"Maybe I should be running for governor of Nevada? What do you think?'' Schwarzenegger said. A beat. "Just joking.''

Schwarzenegger said his drive to cut workers' compensation costs is making the state more competitive. Recruiters from other states often invoke California's troubled workers' comp system in trying to attract businesses. Nevada began an ad campaign in California with the slogan, "You can't hang on.''

In fighting back, Schwarzenegger said he even would take the campaign abroad. He said he would champion California as a friendly place to do business in a trip to China and other Asian states in October or November.

"We're going to go overseas and do the same thing: Sell products," he said. "Sell California to the rest of the world.''

Over the last two years, Schwarzenegger told reporters after the event, other states saw that "California was vulnerable. The attitude in neighboring states was: " 'I've got to move in. There's a vacuum there. I can offer something to frustrated businesses.' Now it's tougher to do that. And in the end, people don't want to live in other states.''

He urged employers to "Come back. Come back home.''

Nevada officials said they weren't upset by Schwarzenegger's visit and did not see the campaign as a threat. As a courtesy, Schwarzenegger phoned fellow Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn on Wednesday morning to tell him he was coming.

Somer Hollingsworth, president and CEO of the Nevada Development Authority, said workers' compensation rates in California remain excessive -- despite Schwarzenegger's springtime bid to slash costs.

"We're the winners,'' Hollingsworth said. "Because we're taking business out of California. There is no business that moved here from California that will move back. They can't afford to. It's absolutely too expensive for them to do business over there.

"I think he's a great guy and I understand what he's doing,'' Hollingsworth said. "But we won the hand. It's aces and eights for us.''

The Schwarzenegger administration is betting that the governor's celebrity and salesmanship might persuade employers to take a fresh look at California.

Schwarzenegger played his part Wednesday with unabashed gusto. After his remarks inside the mall, he went out front and climbed into a hydraulic lift. He then was hoisted 40 feet in the air to be photographed against a backdrop of the billboard.

"Wait for the shots, guys,'' he told photographers below. "There will be a great photograph.''

When the lift reached its full height, the real-life governor gestured to his gargantuan video image behind him. Schwarzenegger flashed a thumbs-up.

Then, he moved down the Strip and boarded an 18-wheel moving van with "Arnold's Moving Co.'' on the cab. Police halted traffic along Las Vegas Boulevard as the truck pulled into a median and stopped. Schwarzenegger opened the passenger door, hung outside and posed for more pictures, in front of one of the new billboards.

The event was carefully choreographed, with the governor's advance team giving precise instructions to photographers on where they should position themselves for the best shots.

Driver and governor then switched seats. Behind the wheel, Schwarzenegger leaned out the window and assured reporters that he had driven large vehicles in the Austrian military. He hit the gas and the truck promptly stalled. He got it going again, and took off toward the big casino-hotels, his police motorcade rushing to catch up.

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