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An old Chinese proverb claims that with "Enough shovels of earth -- a mountain; Enough pails of water -- a river."
Since 2010, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, economic development officials, and local businessmen have gone to China four times, played host to Chinese visitors, and visited New York and elsewhere to tout northwest Ohio's advantages to foreign investors.
The many "shovels of earth" Toledo officials have turned the last three years are about to coalesce into a mountain this fall when 200 foreign investors -- the majority of them Chinese businessmen ready to spend money in the United States -- converge on Toledo for a three-day economic forum where they will network, tour the area, and see firsthand whether the city and region are as good as advertised.
The event is the inaugural 5 Lakes Global Economic Forum on Sept. 24-26, which is being coordinated by the Regional Growth Partnership, and 5 Lakes Global Group, Ltd., a consulting group headed by Simon Guo, a Chinese translator, deal broker, and Toledo resident who has repeatedly brought Chinese investors to Toledo to view the city's amenities.
The forum will be held downtown at the Park Inn Hotel, which was bought last September by a private group of Chinese investors.
"At the end of the day, this is a networking event, I guess I'd say overall," said Regional Growth Partnership president Dean Monske, trying his best not to create unrealistic expectations of immediate payoffs from the economic forum.
But Mr. Monske didn't deny the event's potential to benefit the area. "At the end of the day, if we don't create new investment and new jobs in this region, we kind of missed what the whole purpose of this was," he said.
Planners say the event will draw 200 foreign investors, mainly from China but also from Japan, Europe, and the United Arab Emirates. About 120 have committed to attend, including managers and executives from Chinese firms involved in real estate, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, coal, steel, autos and auto parts, exports, manufacturing, mining, and construction.
Also attending will be 200 business leaders and economic development officials specifically selected from 17 counties in northwest Ohio and Monroe, Hillsdale, and Lenawee counties in southeast Michigan.
The forum, which begins on a Monday evening, will have a full second day focused on meetings, networking, presentations, and panel discussions.
On the last day visitors will see metro Toledo via three tours geared to specific business segments -- transportation and logistics, medical and pharmaceutical, and technology and new manufacturing.
During the conference, visitors will receive a 48-page booklet listing 30 to 35 investment-ready opportunities in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. Each county will submit their top two investment opportunities for the booklet.
"This publication will include real estate projects, large tracts of available land … properties under the manufacturing foreign trade zones, vacant land, warehouse distribution centers, and industrial parks," said Tracy Sallah, a sales manager at Louisville Title who has been the chief planner for the event.
"It's our way of communicating and sharing with [visitors] the real estate and properties available for investment here," she said.
Mr. Monske said the booklet will continue to be used by economic development officials after the forum. "It's something we will have prepared, that we can keep updated, and we can share with anyone looking to invest in the region," he said.
The forum, which may be unprecedented in Ohio economic development circles, has been the brainchild of Mr. Guo for nearly two years, and the event has been in the active planning stages since March.
"He is a visionary. He believes in Toledo like someone who is paid to believe in Toledo but he's not," said Sarah Zimmerman, a former University of Toledo assistant professor of marketing who is now vice president of 5 Lakes Global.
Mr. Guo, who often works as a consultant for the growth partnership, "has got so many wonderful ideas, but having a conference here, having it an annual thing, was one of them," she said.
Mr. Monske said the economic forum is really just "that next step" from the trade missions to China led by Mayor Bell. Each of the four trade missions had a common thread -- 100 CEOs in a room listening to Toledo officials tout the region's advantages, he said.
Now, "We're simply bringing things here versus going to China," Mr. Monske said.
Ideally, the growth partnership would like to stage such an event annually, which is why meticulous planning -- including limiting the number of attendees -- is going into this first event to ensure its success.
Organizers have solicited several large sponsors to become involved in the event, and have secured backing from the Hollywood Toledo Casino, Huntington Bank, Owens Community College, ProMedica, Destination Toledo, FirstEnergy Corp., Columbia Gas of Ohio, and Louisville Title.
They also have reached out to the Asian student unions at University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University to secure the help of 75 students who will serve as translators and ambassadors to help bridge any cultural gaps and make visitors feel welcome.
Ms. Zimmerman said the cultural aspects cannot be disregarded. In Chinese culture, great trust and long-term relationships always precede any actual business transactions.
Because the relationships are so important, it could take two years or longer for the forum to bear economic fruit in the form of investment in the Toledo area, she said.
Paul Zito, the growth partnership's vice president of international development, said organizers understand the forum is just a starting point, but they believe it can be a successful one.
"Everyone has done a fantastic job of putting together a very good program. However, the greatest benefit is going to come when [visitors] are walking in the halls or when they're having a drink or when they're having breakfast and or when they say, 'Hey, let's go get a good American hamburger with someone.' " he said. "Some local will say, 'I know the best place, you have to come here,' and they exchange cards, and they talk about their family, and they talk about their businesses, and then the synergy happens."
Mr. Zito, who has worked statewide to promote international business and encourage foreign investment, said the community effort thus far to pull off the forum is special.
"I've worked with various individuals and individual entities in this region, and the university and RGP would do things internationally from time to time," he said. "But at no point did the community come together and say, 'Let's work together.' And now, over the past 18 months, there's been this spirit of collaboration between the University of Toledo, the Port, the [Lucas County Improvement Corp.], the Regional Growth Partnership, the service providers such as real estate companies and law firms and the banks, and the city of Toledo, and even further throughout the region all the way down to Allen County. All the way west to the Indiana border you have everyone pulling together," Mr. Zito said.
For months now the growth partnership has been promoting the economic forum in China through its satellite office in Shenzhen, China.
"The message we've been promoting in China and around the world has been received very, very well," Mr. Zito said.
Locally, the reaction has been equally enthusiastic, Mr. Zito said, with companies like engineering firm Mannik & Smith, law firm Eastman & Smith, and building materials manufacturer Owens Corning all eager to make presentations at the forum or host visitors at their offices.
"Owens Corning is a perfect example," Mr. Zito said. "They were so excited about it for a number of reasons. The people at Owens Corning said, 'Oh yeah. We could always use some good friends in China.' "
Mr. Monske said it became apparent to him that a Toledo matchup of Chinese investors and local businesses was a strong possibility when officials from Dashing Pacific Group Ltd., a group of Chinese investors, came to Toledo in October, 2010, to inspect The Docks riverfront restaurant complex in East Toledo and the nearby Toledo Marina District property. Dashing Pacific eventually bought both sites.
On their visit, Dashing Pacific officials went to Huntington Center to watch an NBA exhibition game between the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards and sat in a suite hosted by Steve Miller, general manager of SMG, the company that manages Huntington Center.
Mr. Monske said during the second quarter of that game, growth partnership officials met with the Dashing Pacific officials and asked a few local businessmen to join them.
"In 3 1/2 minutes there must have been 70 people in that suite -- every bank president. I mean, it was unbelievable," Mr. Monske said. "And that really is what [the economic forum] is on a larger scale. Everything we do is about networking, building relationships, and connecting the right people together. We're simply the conduit to try and make that happen," he said.
"So just as we did at that basketball game, where so many business leaders of this community got to meet people from around the world, now we're doing it simply on a much larger scale," Mr. Monske said.
"Going to China, our largest delegation was nine or 10 on our third trip. Now, by having them come here, you can have hundreds of people here at one time," he said.
Contact Jon Chavez at: email@example.com or 419-724-6128.