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Gov. Eric Holcomb, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Ports of Indiana CEO Rich Cooper and other state officials pitched Indiana and the Region in a whirlwind three-day trade mission to Canada during which they hobnobbed with business executives, talked trade with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and saw a hockey rink in an office building.

"It was a 72-hour sprint," Holcomb said. "We met with dozens and dozens of potential business partners. It was a productive trip and our first official visit to Canada. They're so close, and we don't want them to think we're taking them for granted."

Holcomb signed memorandums of understanding with Canadian leaders to encourage more trade, collaboration and sharing of best practices, including among universities and through cultural exchanges.

"We have strong relations, such as a strong manufacturing supply chain network in the auto manufacturing industry, and we want to show that we value that," he said. 

Canada and Indiana exchanged an estimated $20.9 billion worth of goods last year, and the nippy northern land of politeness and Tim Hortons is larger than Indiana's next five biggest foreign markets combined.

"It was a very important trip," Holcomb said. "We were able to schedule a high-level meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the minister of foreign affairs, as well as meetings with business associations and chambers of commerce."

Holcomb and Freeman-Wilson took park in a business roundtable with executives from companies like BMO, Cummins Eastern Canada, Eli Lilly Canada and Zimmer Biomet Canada. They discussed opportunities to invest in Indiana as well as for Hoosier businesses to export more goods to Canada.

"Absolutely, it's a two-way street," Holcomb said. "We're not just trying to attract companies but to develop business there. And of course the shipping lane is an important industry to Northern Indiana."

The governor said that Freeman-Wilson "was a big hit when discussing the central location in the heart of the heartland, and all the waterways, roads and airports next to the third largest economy in the United States — Chicago — but with half the cost of doing business, and without the hassle of the regulatory regime. There's opportunity, whether in Gary or Valparaiso or Rensselaer."

Indiana is already home to more than 760 Canadian businesses, including CN Railway, which operates the Kirk Rail Yard in Gary and often leaves Region residents stuck waiting at railroad crossings.

Freeman-Wilson was able to meet with CN executives and pitch Gary's assets in Quebec and Ontario.

"I though it went very well," she said. "We made the case of what we have to offer to businesses. I talked a lot about logistics, highway, air, rail and other assets, and the fact we are looking to diversify our economy. We had a variety of conversations, and everybody on the trade mission agreed we need to follow up. This presents a tremendous opportunity for the state."

Holcomb said Freeman-Wilson's pitch for Gary was strong.

"Folks know where Lake County is and Gary is, but for her to be able to articulate the city's welcoming posture and what Gary could provide is vital," he said. "As a governor and a mayor, we're able to make decisions on the spot and solve problems. We were able to answer any questions they have and show them our government operates at the speed of business, and not the traditional speed of government. It was also two elected officials from different parties agreeing on economic development, and that the city and state have the best opportunities for you to grow your business."

The Hoosier state's delegation also met with executives from Fednav, the Montreal-based shipping company that's the Port of Indiana-Burns Harbor's largest customer and the parent company to its general cargo stevedore Federal Marine Terminals.

"We discussed what they mean to the port, and the volume of traffic they bring through," Holcomb said. "We shared how pleased we are with them, and how the state of Indiana will work with them to grow their operations. We want to make sure our Canadian partners know we value this relationship.

"There's no substitute for being on the ground, shaking hands, being eyeball to eyeball, and formalizing relationships through memorandums ... It's a small world that's getting smaller by the nanosecond."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.