Organizers put final touches on 1st global economic forum

Jeff Beallas of Flags Sales and Repairs hoists flags for the first-ever 5 Lakes Global Economic Forum at The Park Inn Hotel. The hotel, the host site in downtown Toledo, has been spruced up for what may be Toledo's largest-ever economic development event.
Jeff Beallas of Flags Sales and Repairs hoists flags for the first-ever 5 Lakes Global Economic Forum at The Park Inn Hotel. The hotel, the host site in downtown Toledo, has been spruced up for what may be Toledo's largest-ever economic development event.

What may be the Toledo area’s largest ever international economic development event, the inaugural 5 Lakes Global Economic Forum, begins Monday evening in the Glass City with a reception for attendees at the host site, the Park Inn Hotel downtown.

But as of Friday, the final size of the event was still somewhat unknown, because of a slow process in obtaining travel visas.

And on Thursday organizers were dealt a double headache. President Obama decided to give a speech at Bowling Green State University at the exact time and place where forum attendees had been set to visit the university on Wednesday, and presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced he will visit Toledo on Wednesday with the time and place undetermined.

"These are mainly just last-minute adjustments. With President Obama and Mitt Romney coming that created some logistics problems, but we think we’ve got that resolved," said Tracy Sallah, a sales manager at Louisville Title Co. and the chief planner for the economic forum.

"We will be at BGSU at the same time [Mr. Obama] will be there, and it was going to be at the exact same place as the President. We’re still planning to go to BGSU, but we’ve just gone to a 'Plan B' itinerary and a different location on campus," Ms. Sallah said.

As to whether Mr. Romney's visit to Toledo will interfere with the event, "we don’t know about that yet. We’re waiting to hear where he’s going to be. ... We'll adjust our schedules accordingly," Ms. Sallah said Friday.

Complicating things further, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney have spoken out against the Chinese government on the eve of the conference, which will include several prominent Chinese government officials and businessmen.

The Obama Administration lodged an unfair-trade complaint against China last Monday and in a speech in Cincinnati that day Mr. Obama spoke out against China's trade policies, claiming they hurt Ohio workers. Meanwhile, Mr. Romney, in campaign speeches and new ads, has labeled the Chinese government as "cheaters" when it comes to trade.

Ms. Sallah said the outspoken comments by both candidates — and the timing of them — have given event organizers concern as they prepare to receive their Chinese visitors.

"In the back of my mind I thought, 'What if?' And sure enough, the 'What if?' became reality last week," she said. "But we have decided to continue on with our plans as we have them set," she added.

Organizers had planned on having 200 international visitors, mostly businessmen and government officials from China — and nearly an equal number of regional businessmen and officials — attend the three-day event that will end Wednesday evening with a special closing ceremony.

The goal is to have the international visitors experience the Toledo area first hand, network with their local counterparts, take tours of local manufacturing, medical, and educational assets, and see for themselves how the city and region stacks up as a place for financial investment, establishing a business, or becoming involved in other forms of economic development.

But forum officials discovered last month that the wheels of bureaucracy can unexpectedly grind to a halt at the worst times, and in the case of the 5 Lakes Global forum, obtaining travel visas for the visitors has been an excruciatingly slow process even though planning for the event and early invites to Chinese companies began in March.

“One of the issues has been the difficulty of visas. We’ve been working on it since May, but it’s just an inherent problem with the visa system coming into the U.S.,” said Paul Zito, vice president of international development for the Regional Growth Partnership, which is co-coordinating the conference with 5 Lakes Global Group Ltd., a consulting group headed by Toledo-area resident Simon Guo, a Chinese translator and deal broker.

Mr. Zito said there are now 150 international visitors officially attending who have confirmed travel visas. More had indicated they wanted to attend, but it was uncertain if they would obtain visas in time to travel to Toledo this weekend. Most of the international visitors will arrive today and Monday, he added.

Among local participants, Mr. Zito said 150 people have committed to attend. More have indicated they plan to attend but could not give a firm commitment. “We have a great cross-section of the business community already. They are everything I would want to present to an overseas investment group. They are the people that can help [international visitors],” Mr. Zito said.

Helping to represent the state of Ohio at the forum will be Mark Kvamme, president and chief investment officer of JobsOhio Inc., Gov. John Kasich’s quasi-private economic development agency.

With respect to physical preparations, everything will be ready as of today, organizers said.

A 48-page booklet listing 35 investment-ready properties and other opportunities, including a few residential properties in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, has been printed to distribute to forum attendees. Mr. Zito said the booklet turned out so well that the Regional Growth Partnership plans to send copies of it in the future to any overseas investor inquiring about opportunities in the region.

A total of 29 sponsors — led by the UT, Fifth Third Bank, Hollywood Casino Toledo, Huntington Bank, and Block Communications Inc. — have committed funds, manpower, facilities, or other resources for the three-day event.

Ten local businesses, hospitals, or universities — the Port of Toledo, BX Solutions, The Andersons Rail Group, the University of Toledo Health Science Campus (the former Medical College of Ohio), Toledo Hospital and the Toledo Children’s Hospital, Dana World Headquarters, Owens Corning World Headquarters, Owens Community College, BGSU, and UT — have agreed to be visitor sites for four planned tours of the area that will take place Wednesday.

A total of 26 Chinese translators will be available during the forum to provide communications help between the overseas and local attendees. And the foreign press has taken note of the event with reporters from Europe, China, and India having made plans to cover the forum.

Even the Park Inn itself is getting spruced up for the occasion. The hotel painted its sidewalks, hoisted banners welcoming attendees, and set up 16 large international flags late last week to augment its role in the event.

Mr. Zito said that although the event ends on Wednesday evening, some visitors already have indicated they plan to linger a few days to see even more of the area.

“My understanding is quite a few are staying a few extra days, so I’m hoping there will be great opportunities for the local people to initiate a relationship at the event and then perhaps have more intimate discussions on common business interests and possible synergies,” Mr. Zito said.

Contact Jon Chavez at: or 419-724-6128.