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George Hohmann: Europe coverage unsettled

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Almost six months have passed since West Virginia closed its office in Europe.

The late Gov. Cecil Underwood opened the outpost in the Amerika Haus in Munich in 1999. But, as reported last year, the state and other tenants had to move so the building could be renovated. Also, the office's two employees, Sven Gerzer and Holly McGinnis, took other jobs.

Although the office was in the capital of Bavaria, its purpose was to give the West Virginia Development Office a base from which it could deal with clients and prospects throughout Europe.

State Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, who traveled to Munich in August to size up the situation, came back enthused that a "flexible workspace" arrangement might better serve the state.

Burdette has said most meetings with European clients and prospects occurred on the road, not in Munich. Also, a flexible workspace arrangement could cost less.

Regus is one company that specializes in flexible workspace. The company's customers can use a Regus office equipped with a desk, phone, and Internet connection at any location, anytime. More amenities, like a conference room, are available for additional fees.

According to the company's website, Regus has 1,500 centers in 600 cities and 100 countries.

Burdette was asked Thursday if the state has put a contract for Europe workspace out for bid. He said it may not be necessary. He said deciding what to do about a presence in Europe is a work in progress.

Meanwhile, Angela Mascia is heading up the state's efforts in Europe. Mascia had been the development office's project manager for Europe since 2001. She was named interim director of the Europe Office following Gerzer's departure.

Mascia is splitting her time between Europe and here. She recently spent several months in Europe and returned with several business leads, Burdette said.

According to state Auditor Glen Gainer's online databases, Mascia was paid $56,328 last year plus $21,379 in reimbursed expenses.

Mascia was in the headlines in 2003 when it was revealed that she had an affair with then-Gov. Bob Wise. The revelation prompted Wise to bow out of the 2004 election.

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Last week, Rio Tinto, the big Australian-based mining company, announced that it would write down $10 billion to $11 billion of its aluminum assets. It can't be good news for those hoping for a re-start of Century Aluminum's Ravenswood smelter.

Fitch Ratings, an independent rating company, said the write-down "supports our view that weak pricing and net market surpluses are likely to continue for at least the next two years."

The charge "is not a surprise given the state of the aluminum market," Fitch said. "We estimate that between 30 and 50 percent of producers are failing to break even as high stock levels keep official prices in check and cheap electricity becomes scarcer."

Reach George Hohmann at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.

 


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