Mike Bell jets off again this week on another trade mission that he says will forge relationships with investors who ultimately will create jobs for Toledoans.
This time, the mayor will spend five days in Germany, where he, three of his top staffers, and others will attend a technology fair in Hanover followed by meetings in nearby Delmenhorst, one of Toledo’s 10 international sister cities.
Mr. Bell acknowledged he is probably the most traveled mayor in Toledo's history — having traveled as mayor to China four times, as well as to Japan and India.
“The reason I am going to Germany is the same reason I have gone to China and India, and some other places,” Mr. Bell said. “This is about creating relationships that might benefit Toledo. I believe Toledo is leveraged better than any other city in the United States to be a very large international city from the standpoint of bringing people here to invest, and the only way you do that is to create relationships.”
The expense to taxpayers — which will include travel and accommodations for the mayor, Deputy Mayor Paul Syring, Finance Director Patrick McLean, and Public Information Officer Jen Sorgenfrei — is worth it, Mr. Bell said.
Sitting at home doesn’t create jobs, he stressed.
“You cannot expect people to know what Toledo is about by sitting back and hoping somehow they will read about it, so you have to get out and market it if you want to bring people here,” the mayor said.
“Just like when we went to China, a lot of people came here and invested who had never heard of Toledo before,” he said. “So far, we have gotten anywhere from $12 million to $15 million in investment either through the public sector or the private sector, and we have been written up and interviewed on an international basis.”
The driving force behind the trip to Germany is Hannover Messe, held in Hanover, Germany. It is the largest energy trade show worldwide focused on topics such as renewable and conventional power generation, power supply, transmission, distribution, and storage.
Mr. Bell said Toledo should have been at the fair years ago.
“Other cities from Ohio have been doing this for a long time, so we have been a little behind,” he said.
The show runs from Monday through Friday. Mr. Bell’s delegation will be there Thursday and Friday.
The mayor’s group is being shepherded to Germany and the tech fair by D. Paul Zito, vice president of international development for the Regional Growth Partnership, who has attended the Hannover Messe 14 times.
“As it stands now, I have more than 20 meetings set at the Hanover fair and elsewhere in Europe with overseas companies from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, the U.K., Netherlands, Japan, [and] Korea that are considering establishing some type — sales office, distribution center, manufacturing, service center, research and development center — in the U.S. and are interested in this region,” Mr. Zito said.
“I have more than a half-dozen meetings lined up for Mayor Bell at the Hanover fair and over 150 people from the Bremen region have been invited to a seminar in Delmenhorst on April 15,” he said.
The fair includes 5,000 exhibitors from around the world and attracts 200,000 visitors.
“It is truly a relationship-building show and the reason I like it, and why Ohio has been there for so many years, is you get the CEOs, presidents of international marketing or strategic planning or whatever, and they are in the mood to talk about their strategies,” said Mr. Zito, who was previously managing director of the state of Ohio European office for the Ohio Department of Development.
He’s hopeful some of the meetings in Hanover will translate into job creation in the next six months. Others attending the same trip are Tim Greenwood, a Toledo attorney; Mark Schroeder, associate director of undergraduate admission at the University of Toledo; Susan Miko, executive director of Toledo Sister Cities International; and Christine Luttmann, a private citizen.
While in Delmenhorst, Mr. Zito plans to conduct a presentation in Germany, much the same way deal-maker and translator Simon Guo did during the mayor’s trips to China.
The mayor’s schedule also includes meeting with Delmenhorst’s mayor, Patrick de La Lanne, as well as attending a spring festival and a business seminar in that city.
“The main purpose of it is networking,” Mr. Zito said.
View from Akron
Longtime Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, who has been both sharply criticized and praised for his international travel, is already traveling in Europe and plans to be at the technology fair in Hanover, said his spokesman, Stephanie York.
His current trip includes visits to Slovenia for the third Austrian-Slovenian Polymer Meeting and Leeuwarden, the capital city of the Dutch province of Friesland.
Like Mr. Bell, Mr. Plusquellic says his overseas travel has paid off. In 2011, he released an analysis of his jet-setting and at the time, he said the cost averaged $7,870 a year since 2001.
That analysis showed Mr. Plusquellic’s travels have resulted in attracting a dozen companies to Akron and 10 other companies to the Akron area from 2003 to 2011.
“I travel abroad because it’s important to foreign business leaders when they meet the mayor himself — it’s not a duty I can outsource to someone else,” Mr. Plusquellic wrote in a statement regarding his travel. “When I went to Japan to help keep and add jobs at Bridgestone — they wanted to hear our commitment from the mayor, not a group of consultants.”
His official travel includes trips to Israel, Finland, China, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Japan.
Last month, Mr. Plusquellic accepted the Greater Akron Chamber’s top annual honor for his international economic development campaign.
Back in Toledo
The exact costs to the city of Toledo for the Germany trip aren’t yet known, but the airfare is $1,299 per person. Hotels and meals, and other related costs also will be paid by the city for the four city workers.
Councilman Joe McNamara, who is running against Mr. Bell this fall, said many Toledoans have not seen the benefit of the mayor’s travel.
“Has he claimed we have created X number of jobs from his travel?” Mr. McNamara asked.
“I don’t think taxpayers should be paying for Mike Bell to go on vacations costing thousands of dollars, so the travel needs to be justified with actual jobs created for Toledoans. ... There are a lot of people who would like to see Mike Bell in their neighborhoods.”
Still, Mr. Bell said he has no plans to slow down his international travel and plans another trip to China.
Several key Toledo properties, such as the Marina District, The Docks restaurant complex — which were formerly owned by the city — and the Park Inn Hotel, have been purchased by Chinese investors after making contact with Mr. Bell, through Mr. Guo.
Ms. Sorgenfrei said the city did not have a “direct role” in facilitating the sale of the hotel but said it could have been an indirect result of one of the mayor's trips to China.
Dashing Pacific Group Ltd. purchased much of the vacant Marina District and The Docks in East Toledo nearly two years ago, but there has been no development at the Marina District.
The former Hotel Seagate, at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Summit Street, was purchased Nov. 13, 2012, for $600,000, also by Chinese investors. That figure was well below the $4.6 million that the mortgage holder paid in a 2006 sheriff’s sale.
Other Ohio mayors
Other Ohio mayors have made international trips seeking investors or building relationships.
Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell was part of a trip to Turkey in 2012. The city has a large Ahiska Turkish American population.
In his blog post about the trip, Mr. Leitzell lists several officials with whom the delegation met.
“We even met with the U.S. Consular General, Scott Kilner, who indicated that our purpose was exactly what the White House was hoping to see happen regarding U.S.-Turkey relations and we were not only doing something that was cutting edge but also ahead of the curve,” the Dayton mayor wrote.
The trip’s purpose was “to create a relationship with the Turkish government at many levels as well as educational facilities and cultural organizations,” he wrote.
Former Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams went to Paris in November, 2009, to meet with officials from V&M Star Steel, which produces tubes for the oil and gas industry, regarding a proposed expansion project. The company announced in February, 2010, it would expand in Youngstown. Although the initial plan was a $970 million expansion with 400 new jobs, the company decided not to build a melt shop, which reduced the investment to $650 million and 350 jobs.
A matter of value
Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce President Mark V’Soske said the mayor’s concentration on foreign direct investment is extremely valuable for Toledo.
“When you have the chief executive of a city talking to investors and business people, that is of great importance and you usually get a really great reception,” Mr. V'Soske said. “We can’t sit here and put our hands in our pockets. ... You have to market ourselves and the mayor has been like that.”
He dismissed naysayers who claim Mr. Bell’s trips haven’t resulted in enough business or jobs.
“You don’t hit home run every time you go out,” he said. “You have to keep going at it.”
Contact Ignazio Messina at:firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6171.