BILOXI, Miss. -- As the economy continues its struggle out of the Great Recession, governors, economic development officials and private business owners from Southeastern states are meeting with their counterparts from Canada to find new opportunities for trade and investment.

"Like any relationship, it's something you have to work at constantly," said Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen.

The Southeastern United States has had a long relationship with Japan, one that includes the kind of contact between business and government leaders that keeps trade growing, Bredesen said. But the region's relationship with its much closer and much more invested Canadian neighbors is asymmetrical -- Canadians know more about what's going on in the United States than vice versa.

"I would suspect that most Mississippians would not realize that Canada is our biggest trading partner," Barbour said. "Frankly, that's what we're all trying to do, learn from each other."

Members of the Southeastern United States Canadian Provinces Alliance are discussing two-way investment and trade opportunities and encouraging technological and scientific exchanges during their annual conference, held this year in Biloxi.

The real, "working guts" of this conference are the more than 250 individual meetings between businesses in the United States and Canada, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said.

Canada, as it is for most of the member states, is the largest export market for Mississippi. The state exports to Canada more than $937 million a year and imports more than $816 million. Those numbers exclude tourism.

Numbers in the other member states are even higher. Alabama exports $2.6 billion to Canada and imports $1.7 billion. Georgia exports $3.9 billion and imports $5.2 billion. North Carolina exports $4.6 billion and imports $4 billion. South Carolina exports $2.9 billion and imports $2.1 billion. Tennessee exports $4.9 billion and imports $10.2 billion.

"Business-to-business relationships are the primary reason we're here, but the personal relationships are certainly important," said Danny Williams, premier of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada.

For the politicians, having close personal and working relationships with one another gives them the ability to open doors for businesses from their provinces or states, Williams said. For the companies participating, finding partners in the other country helps open new revenue streams and creates new opportunities.

The Southeastern United States Canadian Provinces Alliance, known as SEUS-CP, has its roots in Georgia and Quebec. Leaders there realized a strong trade route existed between the two areas and wanted to build upon it. The formalized alliance is modeled after the 34-year-old SEUS-Japan association and involves the six southeastern states and seven Canadian Provinces.

"When you take a very long term view of future growth, much of that will take place outside of our borders," Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said. "Really enhancing your relationship with your existing partners makes good business sense and that's what we did with Canada."

Canadians pay a good deal of attention to the United States because the country's well- being depends upon it, according to Jean Charest, premier of Quebec.

The core of the relationship between the two countries is energy, Charest said, and much of the three-day conference was focused on energy, particularly green energy technology. Mississippi officials touted Montreal-based Enerkem, which is building a bio-refinery in Pontotoc. The plant will turn municipal waste into methanol, ethanol and high value chemicals.

"What we want to see is not just the assembly jobs, but the research and development, renewable energy projects that will impact not just our state but all of the country," said Neal Wade, Alabama secretary of commerce. "I think there are tremendous opportunities not just to reduce the cost of energy in our region, but also to increase jobs."