About 35 years ago, Harold J. Resweber, at the time the mayor of St. Martinville, went to Fruit of the Loom in search of manufacturing jobs for his Cajun community. He found thousands of them as the textile giant built one of its largest plants just outside of town.
Today, with the company's abandoned plant a reminder of the lost manufacturing jobs across Louisiana and the rest of the country, Mayor Eric Martin is on the same quest, but in a far different location: China.
"Like Toyota and Nissan, there are Chinese companies that want a presence in the United States," Martin said. "Capitalism is exploding in China."
After several trips with other officials to China, Martin hopes to nab a Chinese auto parts manufacturer within the coming months. He also hopes the company, which he would not identify, will be just the first Chinese company to take up shop in the former Fruit of the Loom plant.
If all goes well, Martin expects as many as 500 jobs to be created, with thousands possible in the future.
Martin, like many other St. Martinville residents, blames the North American Free Trade Agreement for sweeping away 2,200 jobs at Martin Mills two years ago. But the mayor said he and other officials decided to look at NAFTA in a different way while seeking a recovery.
"Let's turn this NAFTA thing around and see if there are foreign countries who want a presence in the United States," he said.
Robert Kapp, president of the Washington-based U.S.-China Business Council, did not know of any proposals for Chinese firms to set up operations elsewhere in the United States, but he said it is only a matter of time before Chinese investors spread out across the country.
"You'd have to have a paper bag on your head not to realize that China is branching out and will have capital to invest, not only in this country but all around the world," Kapp said.
Fruit of the Loom's closure of Martin Mills, which employed 3,500 at its height in 1997, was one in a series of employment blows the company dealt the state as it sought to lower labor costs by moving manufacturing jobs overseas.
For years, the Martin Mills plant was the area's largest employer outside the oil, farming and fishing sectors. Former employees talk about the wage-and-benefits package the company offered -- along with the family picnics staged for employees -- although the hours could be extremely long and physically difficult.
"It was like family," said Nanette Theriot, who reached the management ranks during her 16 years with the company. "It was like losing part of me."
Theriot, who underwent state-financed retraining to become an office technician, said reviving the town's manufacturing through foreign investments is still needed, although many former Fruit of the Loom employees have found work elsewhere.
"It's fantastic," she said. "Those jobs are needed. There are still some unemployed, especially those who aren't able to drive somewhere else."
Not everyone shares the enthusiasm, including Harold Resweber's son Don, who owns a convenience store and cafe on the highway leading to the plant. In 1969, his father led a delegation to Fruit of the Loom in Bowling Green, Ky., and persuaded the company to build Martin Mills.
Although the plant's closure was a major blow, Don Resweber said officials need to be careful to make sure that replacement companies are committed to the long term and to boosting the standard of living.
"If they're going to come in, they need to promise first-class wages and first-class benefits," Resweber said. "I'd support them if they'd promise that. I don't want them to come in and take advantage of our local people."
Resweber also said local leaders should concentrate on attracting a U.S. firm to the plant.
"I'm looking for the very best," he said. "I want more than a warm body in there."
But Martin said the competition is steep -- perhaps too much so -- for the town to be able to attract a U.S. manufacturer. "There are empty textile plants all over the southeastern United States," he said.
Martin said the Chinese, who have grabbed U.S. manufacturing jobs with cheaper labor costs for years, are interested in Louisiana as a cost-effective base for assembling and marketing their products in the United States, and for shipping them to Central and South America. Louisiana has several major ports through which goods could be shipped.
Martin and other officials plan to visit China for a third time later this year to negotiate. In the meantime, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has pledged support for expanding the foreign trade zone at the Port of Baton Rouge into St. Martin Parish.
In a foreign trade zone, companies can bring in goods free of U.S. tariffs and assemble them into finished products, which Martin said is what the auto parts company wants to do at Martin Mills.
"So much depends upon this foreign trade zone," Martin said.
During early talks with the Chinese, St. Martinville officials were looking for manufacturing companies that want to use the "Made in the USA" label on their products. But Martin said the auto parts plan would probably restrict the label to "Assembled in the USA" -- at least for that product.
The Federal Trade Commission requires that a product advertised as "Made in the USA" be made "all or virtually all" in the United States.
The Martin Mills plant is now owned by a St. Louis company and, under the current scenario, would be purchased by Chinese investors. The facility is large enough that as many as a dozen other manufacturers could also be housed there.
Martin said the potential of Chinese investment in the United States could be as potent as the investments from Japan during the 1970s and 1980s.
"When we started, we thought it was big, but we know it could be huge," Martin said. "The Chinese are visionary and see these emerging markets growing very rapidly. In a few years, you're going to see these kinds of investments all over the country."