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For two days, Chinese participants at the 5 Lakes Global Economic Forum being held in Toledo had been confined largely to the downtown area, except for a side trip to the Hollywood Toledo Casino.
But Wednesday they got a chance to see other areas of Lucas and Wood counties with a series of three tours focused on various aspects of business in the metro area.
A “red” tour focusing on logistics and transportation took a quarter of the 160 Chinese visitors to the Port of Toledo via the downtown Sandpiper Cruise boat, then a bus took them to BX Solutions at Toledo Express Airport, and then to the Rail Group of The Andersons Inc. in Maumee.
A “blue” tour took another quarter of the visitors to Owens Community College, Bowling Green State University, and the University of Toledo. That tour was thrown slightly off schedule by a visit to BGSU by President Obama.
Meanwhile, a “green” technology and manufacturing tour took nearly 40 visitors to Dana Corp.’s World Headquarters and Tech Center in Maumee, then to Owens Corning’s World Headquarters downtown. The group got a presentation on venture-capital financing while at OC.
A “yellow” tour of advanced medical and pharmaceutical area facilities was canceled because of travel changes for 30 doctors and medical officials from China. The group visited the University of Toledo Medical Center, formerly the Medical College of Ohio, on Tuesday.
The economic forum, which was co-presented by the Regional Growth Partnership and 5 Lakes Global Ltd., a local consulting group headed by Simon Guo, was designed to bring businessmen, government officials, and educators from China to Toledo to learn about the city, tour the area, and determine whether the city and region might be appealing to Chinese investors.
Multiple events for networking among the 160 Chinese visitors, and an equal number of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan businessmen and officials appeared to succeed at providing introductions and opportunities between the two groups to do business in the future.
But the tours were a key aspect, providing a firsthand inspection of parts of the metro area to see if they matched what Toledo economic development officials have been advertising at trade shows and events in China.
Sarah Zimmerman, a vice president with 5 Lakes Global, said the early reports of Wednesday’s tours were promising.
The “green” tour provided a look at two international companies, Dana and Owens Corning, which are both billion-dollar firms, do extensive business in China, and yet are very comfortable operating out of metro Toledo.
Jeff Cole, marketing communication director for Dana, explained how the auto parts manufacturer planned to open a new tech center, much like the one in Maumee that the visitors toured Wednesday, in the Chinese coastal city of Wuxi.
When asked by one visitor why locate in Wuxi, which is not near any specific Chinese vehicle manufacturer, Mr. Cole said it was by design not to be aligned with any particular manufacturer, and that by locating in Wuxi, Dana had drawn other auto suppliers to the area. The answer met with applause.
During the Dana presentation, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, who has forged a personal connection with the visiting Chinese after making three trade trips to China, made an appearance.
The mayor told the group his appearance was to highlight that even though Dana is now in Maumee, Toledo shares a history with the company and the city and its suburbs work together for the benefit of all. “You’re seeing how well we work as a region. Our idea is to show you our industrial power, and although [Dana] is not located directly in Toledo, it has a major impact on this area,” Mr. Bell said.
Bill Rudolph, president and chief executive of the Rudolph/Libbe Cos. Inc. of Walbridge, took the “green” tour and said both the tours and the entire three-day conference appeared to be a success.
“I think it’s going unusually well,” Mr. Rudolph said. “I think [the Chinese visitors] are really being made to feel welcome. And they are really getting to see what Ohio has to offer.”
At Owens Corning, executives of the building products and fiber-glass-insulation manufacturer impressed the visitors with details about how the Toledo company employs 3,400 workers — about 20 percent of its 15,000 global work force — and operates 14 manufacturing facilities in China. A panel discussion focused on why Toledo is a good place to do business while also offering a high quality of life.
But during a question-and-answer session, Michelle Wang, a local accounting consultant serving as an interpreter at the forum, asked a key question that has been on the lips of several Chinese visitors: How should Chinese investors expect to be treated if they were to come to the United States and Toledo and invest money or build manufacturing plants when Mr. Obama and his opponent, Mitt Romney, have accused the country of stealing jobs and committing unfair trade?
OC officials cautioned the visitors not to believe everything they read or hear, and pointed to Honda of America Mfg Inc. — a Japanese-owned company that has been in Marysville, Ohio, for three decades and employs more than 4,000 workers — as an example of a foreign investor that has done well, profited, and is greatly valued by Ohioans.
Yun Wu, a reporter for the People’s Daily newspaper of Beijing, who was in Toledo to report on the 5 Lakes Global forum, said visitors from China should not be too offended by what they hear from Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney.
“A lot of these issues are just the campaign,” Mr. Yun said. “But at a practical level, [the 5 Lakes Global forum] is the kind of thing that goes on.”
Mr. Yun said he had a positive impression of the forum. “I think it’s a good way to let the China people learn about your city. But it’s a first step, it’s a good beginning,” he said.
Toledo, he said, “is not as vibrant” as Beijing, New York, or San Francisco — cities that are more familiar to most Chinese. “But it is more vibrant that I thought. It could use investment to make it get better.”
Contact Jon Chavez at:firstname.lastname@example.org 419-724-6128.