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Published: Thursday, 9/16/2010

Bell defends trip, touts Chinese firms

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Four days into his trade mission to China hoping to find jobs, Mayor Mike Bell was coy about specifics but said the potential for Chinese investment in Toledo is good.

"China is being very progressive in its economic development and we are searching for a business that might want an opportunity inside the city of Toledo," Mr. Bell said by telephone Wednesday from Shanghai.

"We are letting them know how Toledo could fit in from the standpoint of a port and from the standpoint of housing at a reasonable rate, and the ease of moving around our city," the mayor said.

"The key portion is how to leverage their business so they can be more profitable," he added.

Part of Mr. Bell's strategy to attract Chinese investments and business opportunities is a comparison of Toledo and other cities.

"We can be more reasonable than Chicago or Los Angeles because we don't have the backlog they have or the cost factors," he said. "Our labor rates are more reasonable and the profits would be better."

Mr. Bell began the 11-day trip to China on Friday with Deputy Mayor for External Affairs Dean Monske and four Toledo-area businessmen.

The goal is to meet with as many Chinese businessmen as possible and sell Toledo as a great place to do business or build a factory.

"I am over here and I am sort of in line with other cities and states that are trying to leverage the same type of advantage I am," Mr. Bell said. "Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger was here a few days ago, the mayor of Chicago will be here, and the mayor of Pittsburgh is scheduled to be here in two weeks."

The Toledo delegation landed in Hong Kong and has already been to Shenzhen. They will stay in Shanghai through Friday before flying to Ordos. The group then travels to Yulin and Beijing.

The participants accompanying the mayor are Scott Prephan of Prephan Enterprises, Perrysburg; Michael Farrar of ACT Ltd. of Perrysburg and ACT Asian Operations; Sheri Bokros, business development marketing manager for Mannik & Smith, and Alex Johnson, chief executive officer of Ohio Holdings subsidiary Midwest Terminals, Toledo. The group was meeting in China with Simon Guo, president of Simon Business Connection, China, who is a colleague of Mr. Prephan.

A review of e-mails from the mayor's office shows planning for the trip began as early as April and that Mr. Prephan arranged some of the meetings Mr. Bell would have in China.

According to a Sept. 8 e-mail from Mr. Prephan to the delegation the group is confirmed to meet with the Owens Corning head of Asian operations while in Shanghai.

"Owens Corning is planning a major new facility just outside of Shanghai which may have some opportunities for members of the delegation," he wrote. "All of the arrangements have been made for the business forums scheduled in each of the cities we will visit."

While the mayor's trip to China was a surprise to most members of Toledo City Council, they were still hopeful he would make potential business contacts that could help rebound Toledo's still sluggish economy.

Councilman George Sarantou was not aware of the trip until after Mr. Bell had already left.

"If I had found out he had an opportunity to go to China with local businessmen and he chose not to go, I would have been upset because we have to get our heads out of the sand," Mr. Sarantou said. "We now live in a global economy and one of the things we can do the improve our economy is to bring in foreign investors so I am looking forward to a good report when he returns."

The Bell administration consulted with the University of Toledo, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and the Regional Growth Partnership on the presentations the mayor would make to Chinese businessmen.

Councilmen D. Michael Collins said it is too early to assess the mayor's progress.

"Anything we can do to enhance our visibility is very important and to highlight this area's strength as a community is critical to the future of Toledo and northwest Ohio," he said.

The trip includes a meeting with executives from BYD Co., the Chinese auto maker backed by billionaire Warren Buffett. The company and Daimler AG set up a venture to develop electric cars in the world's largest auto market. Daimler, the world's second-biggest manufacturer of luxury cars, and BYD will invest $88 million in the 50-50 partnership in China, the German carmaker said in May.

"We did talk to BYD and that was a very, very good meeting," Mr. Bell said. "We spent four to five hours with them and the part that is amazing with that company is no one sitting across from me, even though they are running a business of 160,000 employees, no one was over the age of 35."

The mayor said he did not keep the trip a secret, but he also did not broadcast it to the media or publicly for City Council.

"I didn't think I had to," Mr. Bell said. "I am doing my job. I said I would be transparent but I would not have to clear everything, and my issue is bring jobs back to Toledo."

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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