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Exports: Rocket Fuel of US Economy

Selling Sandpaper's 'Sticks' to India: Even small firms now sell abroad, a trend that may change politics of free trade.

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In the mid-1980s, only about 10 percent of Keith Blanford's Traverse City-based abrasives business was outside the United States. And most of that "exporting" was to Big Three automakers' factories located just across the Detroit River in Windsor, Canada.

This year, 60 percent of Mr. Blanford's business is overseas. And more than half of Bromide Engineered Abrasives' overseas orders come from the Pacific Rim.

Bromide remains a small firm compared with Detroit's industrial giants. But its success in finding foreign markets - success matched by some of its neighbors at the Traverse City Airport Industrial Park - represents a big story for the US.

Simply put, the global economy now reaches into every corner of America, even the edge of Michigan's northern pines-and-sand-dune country. Export growth has become one of the major engines of the country's long economic expansion.

And as more workers experience the benefit of trade first hand, support for tighter export-import ties with the rest of the world could increase. Short term, whether that helps President Clinton in his fight to expand the North American Free

Trade Agreement (NAFTA) remains to be seen. Long term, it could profoundly alter US attitudes toward protectionism and foreign competition.

"Now that I see how overseas trade can help the company and create more jobs, I'm stronger on free trade than I used to be," says Eric Birgy, a Bromides Engineering machine operator.

"Competition - bring it on," adds co-worker Rich Helfrish. "Personally, I think trade is better now than it was a few years ago. From what I see, it is more of a two-way street than a one-way street."

If US trade is a street, then traffic is increasing. Exports and imports of goods and services accounted for a record 28.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the second quarter of 1997, according to US Commerce Department figures. Five years ago, the comparable figure was less than 21 percent.

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