By Susana Ferreira and Andrew Quinn
CAP HAITIEN, Haiti (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presided over the opening of a $300 million industrial park in Haiti on Monday, a venture led by a South Korea textile company that could bring thousands of jobs to the impoverished Caribbean nation.
"The people of this country have made real progress in a short time, and we've reached a critical moment," Clinton told an investor lunch for 50 people after touring the 600-acre (246-hectare) park.
"We have a chance to keep moving forward together, but it's going to take partnership and support from the private sector - from all of you," she told the audience, which included actor-activists Sean Penn and Ben Stiller, British airline mogul Richard Branson and New York designer Donna Karan.
Former President Bill Clinton, who is the United Nations special envoy for Haiti, was also on hand.
Located between Haiti's second-largest city, Cap Haitien, and the northern border with the Dominican Republic, the Caracol industrial park is seen as one of the few major successes in efforts to rebuild Haiti after a devastating earthquake in January 2010 that killed more than 200,000.
In a romantic twist for the Clintons, it was their first joint visit to the country since they traveled to Haiti for a "delayed honeymoon" in 1975.
At a time when the Haitian government is grappling with a slow recovery from the earthquake, corruption and various threats to political stability, the Caracol park has been embraced as a rare sign of progress.
"Haiti is open for business and this government means it," Haitian President Michel Martelly said.
"In the past, sad images of Haiti have been shown around the world, but Haiti is not just about these images," he said. "We are committed to taking all appropriate measures to make it easier for you to invest in Haiti."
Sprawling across a quiet stretch of agricultural land, the fresh asphalt and scrubbed blue buildings of the industrial park stand in sharp contrast to its mostly pastoral surroundings. Nearby are rows of brightly painted houses in various stages of completion, built to house future workers.
The development of northern Haiti has been discussed for many years but became a priority of the international community's efforts to help Haiti rebuild after the earthquake.
It is hoped the park will not only begin to chip away at Haiti's problem of chronic unemployment but also launch a movement of decentralization away from the overcrowded capital of Port-au-Prince in the south.
The park's promoters cite optimistic long-term estimates of 130,000 new jobs in the region. About half would involve workers directly employed at the park, with thousands of related jobs in agribusiness.
About 1,000 people are already employed at the park's two factories, one operated by the South Korean textile and apparel company and the other by a Haitian paint firm. The number of jobs is due to grow to 5,400 by the end of 2013 as the facilities expand and more companies move in.
Critics say the promise of factory jobs lured thousands of people in the poorest country in the Americas from the countryside to the capital. Most wound up living in swelling slums, which fueled political instability that caused many factories to close.
The Inter-American Development Bank committed an initial $55 million investment for the park's construction, and the founding investor, South Korean textile company Sae-A Trading Co Ltd, committed an additional $78 million to develop operations in the park along with a promise to employ 20,000 Haitians.
Starting wages for Caracol's workers will be at the minimum wage.
Critics have lamented a return to factory-based economic initiatives, saying it will not help pull Haitians out of poverty.
Some of the more than 300 farmers who were displaced from their fields to make way for the industrial park have protested their lost income.
The park is part of a "master plan" for Haiti's North and North-East departments, including the expansion of the Cap Haitien airport to accommodate large international flights and a planned port in Fort-Liberté.
(Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)