A New Brunswick senator wants “Made in Atlantic Canada” to be as recognizable a brand as “Made in Taiwan.”

Pierrette Ringuette is proposing an Atlantic Marketing and Export Centre that she says could help drive export growth, build marketing expertise and encourage Atlantic co-operation. It would also act as a permanent showcase for Atlantic products, and a one-stop-shop for all government funding programs.

She said she first got the idea 12 years ago on a visit to Taiwan’s TAITRA trade development centre while serving as MP for Madawaska-Victoria.

“In Taiwan there was a lot of mom-and-pop shops producing goods but they had no means of identifying markets and routing these products to markets,” said Ringuette, who made a return visit two years ago and was even more impressed by what she saw. “That’s why they produced this centre and now it has blossomed, almost tripled “¦ Twelve years ago when I was there the country was polluted and we had to wear masks to walk downtown. Today, they’ve generated such a good economy: they’ve completely revamped, have the most modern infrastructure and have cleaned up their act.”

Ringuette received $30,000 from the Senate Special Research Fund to study and develop the idea.

“Only six per cent of national exports are from the Atlantic region, and most of these exports go to the U.S.A., and are energy related,” the study states. “In order to grow its economy, Atlantic Canada must increase its market research and its slate of products and services for export, by providing affordable marketing and export expertise to its (small- and medium-sized enterprises) in a one-stop-shop setting, as Taiwan has done.”

The centre would be located in northwest New Brunswick and provide services in English and French. Ringuette said the centre would bring in experts from across the country to provide training to area businesses, host seasonal trade shows and a permanent exhibition site, and make it easier for businesses to access different types of government funding.

Ringuette has discussed the centre in a meeting with Business New Brunswick Minister Greg Byrne, who supports the idea.

“There is no doubt that all the Atlantic provinces need to look at new initiatives to help grow our economies and become self-sufficient, and this could be an excellent tool for achieving our objective,” Byrne said in a news release.

However, not everyone in the business community shares the optimism.

“From my point of view, it’s a waste of time,” said Eric Lemay, president of Andreanne International Inc., the Bouctouche-based bedding company that manufactures Brunswick health sheets.

“It’s just taking (the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency), changing the location and changing the name. There is a little bit new, but it’s nothing ACOA cannot do.”

Lemay, whose company exports more than half its products outside the region in Canada and about 10 per cent outside Canada, would welcome regular trade shows if the centre could attract export-ready companies to the region. He also said he liked the idea of bringing all government programs under a one-stop-shop roof.

“But the rest, helping regional companies with marketing and stuff like that, that’s something that’s already done with ACOA,” he said.

He added that there’s some branding activity done already, such as Team Canada Atlantic trade missions, but cautioned that an Atlantic brand may not always be a positive.

“In fisheries and seafood, I think this is a good marketing thing, but for some other areas, it may be a negative thing,” he said. “For my product, if they believe I’m from Montreal first, it’s a lot better because for buyers they think that everything for consumer products revolves around Toronto and Montreal. When they see New Brunswick they think it’s going to cost a fortune (because) they’re afraid of shipping (costs) when you mention you’re in New Brunswick.”

Charles Cirtwill, acting director of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent economic and social policy think tank, agreed the proposed centre would provide little added value. He said ACOA, Export Development Canada, and provincial governments already perform many of the same services.

“There’s certainly room for far more co-operation among existing agencies and perhaps better communication of the resources already available, but recreating the wheel is not a good idea, especially when somebody’s got to pay for it,” he said.

Cirtwill did applaud Ringuette for undertaking the research and contributing to the public debate. He said he liked the concept of a permanent expo, “but again, that service could be provided through the existing infrastructure. There’s no need for a separate entity.”

As for a “Made in Atlantic Canada” brand, “branding only gets you so far,” said Cirtwill. “It’s a question about what products you have to sell and where you’re able to sell it. It’s kind of like the exercise where we go to Calgary and say, ‘Come home to New Brunswick, it’s a great place to live.’

“That makes people feel warm and fuzzy for five minutes until they realize, ‘It will cost me less to take a job in Calgary than a job in Fredericton.’ Well, it costs less to buy a transistor in Taiwan than in New Brunswick.”

Ringuette doesn’t believe existing organizations are providing what she envisions for the region.

“Everyone is operating in silos,” she said. “In order to be efficient, to reach the ultimate goal, you need to work as a whole. That is true in regard to government services, it’s true with businesses and it’s true with governments.”

“We have to become a global player. I’m sorry we can’t count on Quebec or Ontario or Alberta or B.C. to supply that to us,” she said. “We have to take these challenges in our hands and act as one.”