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Clintons land in Haiti, with stars in tow, to showcase industrial park

Actor Sean Penn and model Petra Nemcova talk at the grand opening ceremony of the new Caracol Industrial Park in Carac, Haiti, on Oct. 22, 2012.
LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton encouraged foreigners to invest in Haiti as she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, led a star-studded delegation which gathered Monday to inaugurate a new industrial park at the center of U.S. efforts to help the country rebuild after the 2010 earthquake.

Actors Sean Penn, Maria Bello and Ben Stiller, fashion designer Donna Karan, model Petra Nemcova  and British business mogul Richard Branson were among the luminaries at the opening of the new Caracol Industrial Park, which is projected to create thousands of jobs more than 100 miles from the quake-ravaged capital of Port-au-Prince.

Hillary Rodham Clinton told a roomful of investors gathered for a luncheon that she had made Haiti a priority when she became secretary of state.

"We had learned that supporting long-term prosperity in Haiti meant more than providing aid," she said. "It required investments in infrastructure and the economy that would help the Haitian people achieve their own dreams.

"So we shifted our assistance to investments to address some of the biggest challenges facing this country: creating jobs and sustainable economic growth," she added.

The $124 million put in by the U.S. makes the park Washington's biggest single investment in the aftermath of the quake and it is certain to shape the legacy here of the Clintons, who last visited Haiti together in 1975 on a wedding gift following their honeymoon in Mexico.

"We've had a deep connection with Haiti ever since," Hillary Rodham Clinton said.

Monday's trip is her third to Haiti since the earthquake. Her husband, now a U.N. special envoy for Haiti, has made more than a dozen visits and was co-chairman of an earthquake recovery panel before its mandate ended a year ago.

"I've been here so much I'm sure I owe taxes to the Haitian government," Bill Clinton joked.

The industrial park inaugurated by the Clintons was built on a 617-acre site that aims to "decentralize" Haiti's economy away from the crowded capital of Port-au-Prince and help develop the long-neglected countryside.

"This is a model of international cooperation and a symbol of Haiti moving forward," said Haitian President Michel Martelly.

The park's anchor tenant is South Korean apparel giant Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd, which begun production in May. It has agreed to create 20,000 permanent jobs within six years and also build 5,000 houses. Backers say the entire park has the potential to generate up to 65,000 jobs in all.

Sae-A, which shipped 76,000 T-shirts to Wal-Mart in the United States on Oct. 15, says it is training 1,050 workers, 70 percent of them from the area surrounding Caracol. Daniel Cho, a representative of Sae-A in Haiti, said the employees will be paid almost $5 for eight hours of work.

"What we saw today is something ... where the right steps were being taken and is deserving of our encouragement," Sean Penn, the actor who became Haiti's ambassador at large for his charity work in the country, told The Associated Press. "We hope that Sae-A's maverick nature will be modeled after."