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Published: Thursday, 4/18/2013

Willkommen, Herr Bell

It isn't immediately clear — and may not be known for several years — what tangible benefits, if any, Toledo will gain from Mayor Mike Bell’s trade mission to Germany this month. But one notion can be promptly dispelled: that the mayor’s trip was merely an all-expenses-paid junket at taxpayer expense.

Toledoans can and should hold Mr. Bell accountable for the results of his out-of-town travels — not only his five-day excursion to Germany, but also previous visits to China, Japan, and India, and official trips to other parts of the United States. Such missions are among the things mayors and other elected officials do to create jobs, recruit private employers, and promote economic growth.

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Mayor Bell estimates that his four visits to China have helped generate $12 million to $15 million, directly or indirectly, in investment in the city. Toledoans who monitor the continued lack of activity in the Marina District, or the turnover among tenants at The Docks, might fairly — and skeptically — ask how the mayor arrived at that figure.

Still, Mr. Bell will not work to attract private-sector jobs by sitting in his office in One Government Center and waiting for potential employers and investors to call him. Other mayors of cities in Ohio, and across the country, with which Toledo competes conduct equally aggressive international marketing campaigns.

In the German city of Hanover, Mayor Bell toured a trade show that is the world’s largest technology exposition, featuring alternative-energy industries that northwest Ohio seeks to expand its already considerable footprint. The event attracted top executives of thousands of companies, including Dana Holding Corp. of Maumee.

The value of the personal contacts that Mayor Bell, his aides, and local development and higher-education officials who accompanied him made at the trade fair seems obvious. That’s why the show also attracted officials who represented Cleveland, Akron, Canton, and Ann Arbor.

Mr. Bell’s side trips to Switzerland and to Toledo’s German sister city, Delmenhorst, seemed a bit more sentimental. Even so, the mayor attended a seminar in Delmenhorst where he pitched Toledo to business leaders in the region. And he picked up ideas in the cities he visited about ways Toledo might deliver municipal services and adapt and reuse older buildings more effectively.

Toledo City Councilman Joe McNamara, who is challenging the mayor’s re-election bid, called the Germany trip a “vacation.” He argued that Mr. Bell cannot directly attribute any job creation in the city to his global travels. Other critics suggested that Mr. Bell would spend his time more productively on Toledoans’ behalf aboard a pothole-patching truck.

Such attitudes are shortsighted. In an era of economic globalization, and increased competition among nations for jobs and business, the idea of Fortress Toledo is no longer relevant, if it ever was.

That notion is reminiscent of efforts by small-gauge politicians in Toledo’s suburbs to demolish regional activities that include the central city. Toledo and northwest Ohio need to sell themselves and their advantages to the rest of the world as a single, productive unit.

Mayor Bell’s economic-growth strategies since he took office, including his foreign trips, will form a legitimate issue in this year’s campaign. But the assertion that any trip by the mayor outside the Toledo city limits must be a boondoggle is political hyperbole — ill-informed at best, cynical at worst.

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