PHOENIX — Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, one of the richest men in the world, spoke Wednesday before a large, lively crowd of business people and economic leaders as part of a forum on global markets.
Slim, who was mobbed by people wanting to shake his hand and snap a selfie before the event began, spent the majority of his keynote address talking about the changing economic paradigms in society.
But for many in attendance it wasn’t so much what Slim said, but that he was here to say it at all.
Arizona’s relationship with Mexico suffered considerably after a wave of anti-immigrant feeling crested five years ago with Gov. Jan Brewer signing SB 1070 into law, a measure then described as one of the toughest immigration laws in the country.
The state has been trying to restore the relationship with its largest trade partner ever since, with incoming Gov. Doug Ducey placing particular emphasis on the issue.
“My top priority as a governor is to create and expand opportunity for all, and I’ve said repeatedly that a thriving partnership with Mexico is a crucial driver of that mission,” Ducey said.
The governor introduced Slim to the almost 500 people in attendance Wednesday, and said Arizona should solidify its place as Mexico’s economic partner.
Already, the value of Arizona exports to Mexico was $8.6 billion in 2014, a 22 percent increase from the previous year.
Projections have Mexico moving from the 14th largest economy to the fifth by 2050, Ducey said, and Arizona must be ready to capture its fair share of the opportunity that growth will bring.
A renewed focus by the Arizona-Mexico Commission and the recent opening of a trade office in Mexico City are indicators of the state’s commitment, Ducey said.
“Arizona is sending a strong and positive message that we are open for business.”
Asked how Arizona and Mexico may work more closely, Slim said it was up to business to hold the governor to his word.
“I think we need to follow the leader, the governor, not to leave him alone, and go from the intention, the speech, the concept, to the reality,” Slim said. “He’s pushing for a better relationship... You need to take advantage of it.”
Slim stressed there is enormous potential in the trade relationship between the United States and Mexico, but that entrepreneurs should look beyond the traditional maquiladoras and focus on services, tourism, cross-border financing, culture, education and health.
For Tucson, which benefits from a stronger relationship with Mexico, Slim’s visit was a positive sign, said Global Chamber CEO Doug Bruhnke.
“When you look at Tucson relative to the rest of Arizona, the percentage of exports for GDP is higher in Tucson and you’ve got a higher amount of foreign direct investment going on in Tucson than anywhere else in the state,” Bruhnke said.
“Hopefully we can use this as another stepping stone to move not just Arizona forward, but Tucson.”