Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, on the sixth day of his 11-day trip through China, continued to embrace Shanghai with the eagerness of a front-row student, the wonderment of an explorer, and the charm of a statesman.
SHANGHAI - Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, on the sixth day of his 11-day trip through China, continued to embrace Shanghai with the eagerness of a front-row student, the wonderment of an explorer, and the charm of a statesman.
The mayor spent Thursday jotting notes and networking during three sessions of a conference on sustainability titled "Green Cities: A Call To Action" presented by the American Chamber of Commerce.
He said the speakers, who talked about their failures and get-back-up-again-and-into-ring stories, were instructive as was the concept that green technology needs to be marketed not just as a product or a service, but as a lifestyle.
During the conference lunch break he marveled to Auria O. Styles, a corporate finance attorney from San Francisco, about the stark differences between the policy choices facing Shenzhen, China, a city of nearly 9 million near Hong Kong, and those facing Ohio.
"Their biggest issue is they're slowing down the automobile industry because they don't have a place to put the cars," Mayor Bell told her.
Ms. Styles filled Mayor Bell in on the EB-5 visa program, which provides a special status for immigrants whose investments, through a regional economic center, provide jobs for the community in which they settle. "They don't want to live in the U.S. necessarily, but they want to have the option," said Ms. Styles. Ohio would first have to opt into the federal program in order for Toledo to take advantage of it, she added.
"I'm going to be interested in anything that's outside the box," Mr. Bell told Ms. Styles.
Despite a 12-hour time difference to which he had yet to fully adjust, Mayor Bell's charm was on full display.
Approached by a smiling Esther Young of California, a public information assistant for the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, he asked, "And where do you go to school?"
"He's a lovely guy - I wanted to give him a hug. He's so warm," she said later.
That afternoon, Mayor Bell, Deputy Mayor Dean Monske, and Toledo-area businessmen Scott Prephan and Michael Farrar met with the three top officials who run Asian operations for Owens-Corning, a Toledo Fortune 500 company. Mr. Monske called the visit "warm, friendly" with "someone we already know." The goal of the meeting, which was closed to the press, was intended to enhance the connections the delegation already had developed, Mr. Monske said.
"This is what's needed to be done for 15 years," said Mr. Prephan, of Prephan Enterprises, a real estate development, consulting, and management firm headquartered in Perrysburg, who repeatedly spoke of his support for the mayor's trip. Some members of Toledo City Council questioned Mayor Bell's judgment of leaving for China without briefing council, except for Council President Wilma Brown.
Sitting on the sidelines of the sustainability conference Thursday morning, Mr. Monske said the history of the trip began during the 2009 mayoral campaign and continued after the administration took office, but first had to deal with a $48 million deficit.
Members of of the 80-20 club of Northwest Ohio, an Asian-American civic and political interest group, had repeatedly lobbied the deputy mayor and the new administration, encouraging them to make use of the family connections of the 80-20 club members in Toledo.
Forty new businesses from China had come to Detroit in this way, the group's members claimed.
When the Toledo business community also urged the Bell administration to direct its attention to China, Mr. Monske said he turned to Mr. Prephan, a longtime friend who he knew to have a long relationship with businesses in China, to troubleshoot the issue. That was this past spring.
Mr. Monske said he asked his friend to sift out the realistic opportunities from all those that had been proposed. The deputy mayor said Mr. Prephan told him: "There are a million opportunities here. The hard thing is deciding. Everyone in China likes to talk. Everybody's got something going on. The hard part is separating what's a real opportunity and what's just talk, and are you ever going to accomplish something?"
Mr. Prephan then introduced Mr. Monske to a Chinese consultant who specializes in sourcing raw materials for foreign manufacturers. That consultant, Simon Guo, introduced Mayor Bell and Mr. Monske to Qu Guangsheng, who runs a business education program for Chinese Chief Executive Officers.
Mr. Monske said he remembers another important meeting leading up to the current China trip.
After a dinner in June at the Docks along the Maumee River in downtown Toledo, Mr. Qu, on a stopover in Toledo on his way to a conference in New York, told Mayor Bell "This is where our CEOs have to come," recalled Mr. Monske. He added that Mr. Qu was impressed by, among other attributes, Toledo's geographic location, its highway system, the port, and its educated work force. "This is where our manufacturers have to come, this is where our distributors and headquarters have to come. This is the place they need to be," Mr. Qu said.
At the conference in New York two days later attended by 43 Chinese CEOs, Mr. Guo invited Mr. Prephan to pitch Toledo to the audience. The result, said Mr. Monske, was overwhelming. "When he was done, he was descended upon by 43 CEOs 'Tell me more, tell me more,'" was the common refrain.
That experience caused the momentum for Mayor Bell to visit China to accelerate. Toledo needed to market itself and its officials had to create the necessary interpersonal relationships integral to doing business with the Chinese, Mr. Monske said. "Let's do it," he recalled the mayor saying.
Mayor Bell said it was the right decision: "There are a lot of people that knew I was coming here. So the question is, 'Who do I have to explain what I'm going to do, as mayor, before I actually attempt to do my job?"
Mr. Monske said by not actively publicizing the trip the administration would not be held to expectations. "You set yourself up for, if you don't hit all 10 points and you hit nine of them, they want to talk about the one you didn't hit."
Mr.Bell agreed, saying he wanted to "minimize the possible negative effects of a trip like this going south on us." A publicized debate about whether the trip should take place could have been seen by potential investors as disunity - weakness, he said.
Other Americans in Shanghai who are involved in economic development echoed Mayor Bell's concerns. "[Investors] are not looking for a situation in which they are going to face a political backlash from the community in which they are investing. China is spread out in the media as an entity to be feared - China is going to take over," said one developer who traded candidness for anonymity.
Ginny Fang, executive director of CHINA SF, a joint project of the San Francisco Center for Economic Development and the office of Mayor Gavin Newsom, said Mayor Bell's concern about presenting a unified municipal image to Chinese investors was well-founded. "You sense where you are welcome. How seriously they took you."
Like everything else in booming China the investment community is in a "nascent state," said Ms. Fang, who, over the last two years working in Shanghai has recruited 12 companies and over 120 jobs to San Francisco.
"In the U.S., you go to Morgan Stanley. Here, there isn't that infrastructure and people don't know too much," she said. "At the end of the day, Toledo's opportunities have to match up with what investors want. The promotion will help, but you've got to have something behind the promotion."
Bill Marcus is a freelance reporter based in Shanghai.