Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and 20 local business executives recently returned from a high-tech fair in Shenzhen, China. They were there to drum up business for the city. As they return from their Asian road trip, there are cautionary signs that the region should not ignore.
A recent Blade story described how a local company embraced what appeared to be “a simple business transaction” in China. Eight years later, Heidtman Steel Products still is trying to recover millions of dollars it gave its Chinese partner.
Getting judgments in international courts hasn’t been a problem, but Chinese courts have been unsympathetic. Without their help, Heidtman will have a hard time collecting, because the Chinese company’s assets are all in that country and therefore out of reach.
Another sign was the auction sale this month of Admiral’s Grill, a restaurant that opened less than a year ago at The Docks. The owners blamed their problems in part on a lease dispute with their Chinese landlords, the investment group Dashing Pacific Group Ltd. A Lucas County Common Pleas Court judge ruled that Dashing had violated Admiral’s lease, but too late to save the restaurant.
Mayor Bell’s first trip to the Far East in September, 2010, bore fruit in less than a year. Dashing Pacific spent almost $6 million to buy The Docks in March, 2011, and purchased 69 acres in the Marina District four months later.
Since then, The Docks lease dispute has been almost the only activity at either site. The mayor argues plausibly that Dashing Pacific is moving slowly because Chinese investors take a longer view than Americans. Heidtman’s experience argues that Toledoans may have to take the long view as well.
Mr. Bell likely has logged more frequent-flyer miles than any other mayor in Toledo history. Wooing China makes business sense: It is, as Willie Sutton is reputed to have said about why he robbed banks, “where the money is.”
But a successful partnership between northwest Ohio and China will take time, patience, and a keen eye for roadblocks and pitfalls.
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