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World trade center group tries to turn vision into reality

When Scott A. Johnson talks about world trade centers, an evangelistic fervor colors his conversation. "It's like I'm out spreading the Gospel," he said. "There is a real need for a world trade center here, a real opportunity. It's amazing to me that Tampa Bay hasn't had a trade center before. There are a lot smaller markets with world trade centers _ Wichita, for example."

Johnson's new mission in life is to correct that oversight. As executive director of the World Trade Center of Tampa Bay Inc., he will attempt to turn the grand idea of an international business center into a functioning reality.

He and the trade center's organizers have a vision of a place _ somewhere in St. Petersburg _ where business people can make the contacts and get the information they need to do business overseas.

"The real benefit will be for the small- or medium-sized company, which will have access to information and services that typically a very large company has on its own," Johnson said. He said market research, help setting up meetings abroad and the access to an international computer network are among the services the trade center will provide.

As a side benefit, cities with world trade centers also attract foreign business executives interested in investing in the United States, he said.

"It puts you on the world trading map," he said.

The Tampa Bay job seems tailor-made for the 30-year-old Johnson, who brings to it his experience as marketing director and then managing director of the Minnesota World Trade Center in St. Paul.

"He understands the set-up and will be of infinite help to us," said James T. Lang, president of the Tampa Bay group.

A Minnesota native, Johnson started his own small trading company, representing U.S. exporters, while still a political science student at Macalester College. After graduation, he went to work for another trading company, then took a job as a sales representative for IBM.

But selling computers to the state didn't have nearly the appeal of international trade. Johnson worked on the development of the Minnesota World Trade Center as a volunteer, and when he got an offer to become its marketing director in 1985, he told IBM goodbye.

"My family thought I was crazy to leave IBM, but there wasn't much of a challenge there for me," he said. Two years after joining the trade center, he was running it.

Johnson said one of his biggest accomplishments was supervising the development of a satellite broadcasting system that links the trade center with 34 educational institutions around Minnesota. He left the center last fall to do consulting work on his own.

"There were no major steps left for me to accomplish," he said. "I'd have had to be a daily manager, and I'm not very interested in that."

"Scott's a real bright person who understands the nuances of knitting together trade center programs," said Richard Broeker, the former director of the Minnesota center who hired Johnson. "He's also a tenacious, persevering person who gets things done, and he has a very low ego so he doesn't have to be always standing in front."

Broeker, who was a consultant to the Tampa Bay center's organizers, recommended Johnson to the group.

At least in the near future, Johnson plans to commute to St. Petersburg from his home in Minneapolis. He and his wife, Shawne, who works for a Minneapolis advertising agency, have a 6-month-old son, Murphy.

The Tampa Bay center definitely won't be a carbon copy of the Minnesota center, Johnson said.

"Successful trade centers adapt to the needs of the region," he said. "We plan to be very market driven."

The Minnesota center is a quasi-state agency that has received substantial state operating funds and gets free rent from the city of St. Paul. It also has been something of a political football. As a pet project of former Gov. Rudy Perpich, a Democrat, the center has been criticized by Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican, for failing to meet expectations.

Johnson said the center has helped Minnesota substantially increase its exports and has boosted international investment in the state.

"When we first started working on the trade center, people thought we were kooky; now it's not even debatable that international trade is important to the economy."

The Tampa Bay center will consist of two entities.

One will be a non-profit membership organization that will seek public financing and private contributions. Members will pay dues based on the size of their businesses and the level of services.

The other entity will be a for-profit corporation that, years down the road, may build an office building to house the trade center.

Lang said the center is negotiating to lease office space in St. Petersburg. He and the center's other founders hope trade-oriented companies and organizations will be drawn to the center, creating a kind of international trade complex that eventually would support a building. The Florida Department of Commerce already has agreed to put a representative in the center.